Their fight was over something small. He placed a tire iron in her car the wrong way and its rattling annoyed her. They argued in the kitchen after dinner. She hit him with a cast-iron casserole pan. He stabbed her at least six times, killing her and ending a tumultuous marriage of 10 years, according to testimony.

Yesterday, Army Lt. Col. Bruce N. Griffin, 46, who pleaded guilty to second-degree murder in the stabbing of his 37-year-old wife, Paulette, stood in a Fairfax County courtroom shaking as a Circuit Court judge sentenced him to 18 years in prison.

"In a civilized society, there are a lot of unhappy marriages. Very few end up like this," said Judge F. Bruce Bach. "What makes it worse is, you are an educated man . . . . You have three master's degrees. As a judge, I cannot condone this."

The pronouncement of the sentence came at the end of a 30-minute hearing in which a clinical psychologist testified that Griffin, an Army medical personnel analyst, was a man with a rigid personality who kept emotions pent up until seconds before stabbing his wife.

Griffin's attorney, Michael J. Cassidy, told the judge that the killing was rooted in the fact the marriage continued when it should have ceased. Cassidy said the Griffins had stayed together for the sake of their two sons, now aged 5 and 6.

"We're not trying to justify this. We ask the court to consider his frame of mind," Cassidy said yesterday in court. "He made the decision to stay with the family because of the boys. In the clinical sense, the pressure that built up . . . suddenly rose during the course of this argument."

Griffin, of the 4500 block of Stone Pine Court in Chantilly, pleaded guilty March 12 to the Nov. 25 stabbing of his wife. According to court records, Griffin told a police operator when he called for help: "She hit me in the face with a big pot, broke my glasses and then stabbed me. I stabbed her . . . I went insane."

Griffin told the judge yesterday: "I can't bring Paulette back. I want to do all I can to help my boys. There aren't words in the language to say, I'm sorry."

Assistant Commonwealth's Attorney Elizabeth A. Luttig, in asking for the maximum penalty of 20 years, called the killing "despicable." Luttig said that such a stabbing bucked the norms of a "civilized society."

"You don't stab someone six times over an argument about a jack rolling around in the back of a car," Luttig said. "You don't stab someone because they hit you with a frying pan.

"There were three fatal wounds in her stomach. Her thumbs were almost completely cut off," said Luttig, noting that the tragedy was heightened by the presence of the couple's two small sons. The children have been placed in the custody of their maternal grandparents.