A 19-year-old American sailor has become the center of legal controversy in Kenya that has revived racial tension here and led to some criticism of Kenya's cooperation with the United States in its newly expanded military role in the Indian Ocean.

Frank Sundstrom, a fireman's apprentice of the USS La Salle, killed a prostitute in the seaport city of Mombasa, pleaded guilty to a reduced charge of manslaughter and was released on a $70, two-year "good behavior" bond. Sundstrom is now free, and has returned to the United States, where the Navy is considering whether to take any action against him.

The Sept. 30 verdict has brought an outcry for judical reform from Kenyans, who point out that Sundstrom, from Coventry, R.I., was tried by a white British judge. The white prosectuor, also British, "instead assumed the role of the defense counsel," the daily East African Standard of Nairobi charged.

Sundstrom was defended by an Asian lawyer, meaning that no black took part in a case involving the killing of a black, Monica Njeri, 29, who is survived by daughters 11 and 4 years old.

Such emphasis on race has been rare in recent years in the East African country despite a legacy of discrimination during British colonial rule.

Fourteen of the 19 high court judges in the country are white, many foreigners on contract, in a country where whites make up fewer than 1 percent of the 15 million population.

The press, which usually does not stray far from government policy, and many Kenyans have pointed out that the average manslaughter conviction results in a sentence of about seven years. It is not uncommon for persons to get long jail sentences here for stealing a chicken or small amounts of money.

Such has been the outcry for the dismissal of the judge, 74-year-old L. G. E. Harris, and the prosecutor, Nicholas Harwood, that Attorney General James Karugu was forced to make a statement on the case in parliament this week.

Karugu received thunderous applause when he said, "I am not satisfied that justice was done." The attorney general added that he was "frustrated" because he was "legally impotent" to do anything in this case.

He said it was the "price we have to pay for independence of the judiciary," but added to applause that he would seek powers from the National Assembly to appeal against such sentences in future.

One member of the parliament and several writers of the unusual number of letters to newspapers have raised the question of whether the United States, which is making up much of Kenya's food shortage, applied pressure for a lenient verdict.

U.S. officials called the verdict "surprising" and have denied intervention as did Karugu. If anything, the freeing of Sundstrom would seem to be an embarrassment to Washington.

However, that has not prevented accusations against the United States from being made.

One letter to the editor, noting that Sundstrom was a member of "the armed forces of a superpower," asked "is this the price we have to pay for the foreign investment and so called 'aid' we received from the superpower?"

An informed Kenyan said the case was just one example of the difficulty that Nairobi's expanded military cooperation with the United States would cause for Kenya's nonaligned status and in its internal politics. His solution was for Kenya to get out of its agreement with the United States before more serious problems arose, but there is no indication that the government will take such action.

Other Kenyans, however, feel the verdict was simply a case of mistaken judgement by a justice beyond normal retirement age.

The incident hardly augurs well for the U.S. Navy's increased use of Mombasa as a liberty port for sailors in its expanded Indian Ocean fleet. About 33 American ships are now patrolling the ocean as part of the U.S. effort to safeguard Middle East oil-shipping lanes.

Earlier this year the United States signed agreements with Kenya and Somalia providing for U.S. use of the countries' air and port facilities to help develop a "rapid deployment force."

Mombasa, which is about 300 miles east of here, long has been an occasional port of call for the U.S. Navy, but with the new policy visits are far more frequent and the ships are much larger.

Last month the aircraft carrier USS Midway visited and unloaded for shore leave about 5,000 sailors who had been at sea for about six weeks. Nairobi residents say the overnight train to Mombasa was filled with prostitutes seeking business.

Sundstrom's problems began Aug. 3 when the command ship La Salle docked at Mombasa. According to Sundstrom's sworn testimony, he visited a nightclub where he drank beer, smoked marijuana and made an arrangement with Njeri to spend the night with her for about $41.

The sailor was apparently unhappy with her services.

Judge Harris' judgment said: "Having had intercourse together, the accused and Njeri consumed more beer after which they came to blows, he apparently having taken money from her purse, and so violent was this drunken fracas that he smashed a bottle on her head and jabbed her with the broken bottle inflicting the wound from which she died."

Many Kenyans have pointed out that under the country's tough antirobbery laws Sundstrom could have received a death sentence on the charge of robbery with violence even had Njeri lived.

The prosecutor, instead of calling for a custodial sentence, cited Sundstrom's testimony: "I went completely berserk. When I finally stopped and realized what I had done I was almost crying."

Just as galling to many Kenyans were the remarks of the sailor's mother, Anna Sundstrom, who attended the trial. "God is great," she said. "Justice has been done."