The fight was over a telephone conversation cut short. One inmate at Lorton's Youth Center hung up the phone while the other was talking. Words passed and tensions brewed. Four days later, one inmate was dead in the shower, stabbed once in the heart with a 16-inch blade.

Nathan Price, 22, was convicted yesterday in Fairfax County Circuit Court of second-degree murder in the Aug. 8 death of Gordon Stewart, 19, who was serving a 36-month sentence for stealing a necklace.

After almost a full day's trial testimony, Price accepted a plea agreement from the prosecutor and entered an Alford plea. Under that arrangement, a defendant does not admit guilt but admits that the state has enough evidence to obtain a conviction.

Under the plea agreement, Price cannot be sentenced to more than 15 years in prison. The maximum punishment for second-degree murder is 20 years in prison. Circuit Court Judge Michael P. McWeeny set Price's sentencing for Jan. 18.

During the trial, a corrections officer testified he searched each inmate the morning of the stabbing before releasing them from their cells to take showers. Minutes later, the officer testified, two inmates hurried out of the stalls looking fearful, and Price emerged with a 16-inch blade, known in prison parlance as a shank, dripping with blood.

"He had the shank in his right hand with a real firm grip and he was coming at me like he was a robot or something," the officer testified. "I kept saying, 'You are going to have to drop the piece' . . . . Then he just snapped into it. He dropped the shank and I kicked the shank out toward the gate."

Deputy Commonwealth's Attorney Raymond F. Morrogh told McWeeny that a Fairfax police investigator asked Price why he stabbed Stewart.

Price said he was on the phone with relatives in the District when Stewart told him his time was up. "He said, 'He hung up on my people in D.C.,' " Morrogh told the judge.

Stewart's mother, sitting in the second row, began sobbing when Price entered his plea. Upon hearing the maximum sentence, other family members shook their heads in dismay.

William Hunt, Stewart's godfather, said outside the courtroom that Stewart was serving a three-year sentence at Lorton, D.C.'s correctional complex in southern Fairfax County, for stealing a necklace.

"I did not believe he would be killed there," Hunt said. "I thought he would be safe there."

Price's attorney, Gene R. Johnson, said Price was serving a 36-month sentence for receiving stolen property. He said Price contends he killed Stewart in self-defense.

Johnson said that although murder is uncommon in the facility, violence in penal institutions is indigenous.

"When people are in tight places, different situations arise," Johnson said. "The phone thing was just one of them."