In a cramped courtroom on the Navy base in this winter-quiet resort town, the court-martial of Mitchell T. Garraway Jr. of Suitland is unfolding amid charges of racism and speculation that the Navy is pressing to execute one of its own for the first time since 1849.

Garraway, 21, a black petty officer third class, is being court-martialed for the fatal stabbing of his white superior officer at sea on June 16. The Navy has rejected his offer to plead guilty to charges of murder and carrying a concealed weapon and is instead trying to prove that the killing of Lt. James K. Sterner, 35, a former Prince William County teacher, was premeditated -- a crime punishable by life imprisonment or death.

The Navy prosecutor, Lt. Daniel O'Toole, refuses to comment on why the Navy will not accept Garraway's guilty plea or on what penalty the Navy is seeking in the case. Asked last week whether Garraway has a right to know if he is on trial for his life, O'Toole replied, "He knows that this is a capital offense."

Garraway's civilian lawyer, Trevor L. Brooks of New York, contends that his client was a victim of racist attitudes aboard the frigate USS Miller and is now a victim of the Navy's determination to "make an example" of him. He said that a psychologist will testify that Garraway has a "paranoid personality" and that Garraway believed that Sterner was blocking a promotion that Garraway deserved and that Garraway believed that racism was a factor in the decision.

"Something in him snapped," Brooks said about the night Garraway happened upon Sterner in a passageway of the ship and plunged a Marine combat knife with an eight-inch blade into the officer's back.

Mitchell (Mitchie) Garraway sits with lowered head at the makeshift defendant's table in the third-floor room at the Naval Education and Training Center. He wears his dark dress uniform with "USS Miller" stitched in white on the sleeve. White-and-gray seagulls can be seen through the windows, gliding over a nearby bay.

His mother, Mattie Garraway Umrani of Suitland, watches from her seat among a small group of reporters and Navy personnel.

"We are dealing with a very closed military community here," Umrani said in an interview last week. "It is my belief that my son has been tried and found guilty already."

The eight men who will decide Garraway's future -- four enlisted men and four officers, three black and five white -- face Garraway at long tables, equipped with yellow legal pads and sharpened pencils. They are allowed to submit questions to the judge to be asked of the witesses, and often do so. Two-thirds of them must vote guilty to convict Garraway, and all eight must agree if they are to sentence him to death.

The men are referred to as "The Members," not the jury. Each wears a white scrap of paper pinned to his lapel that designates him as a "Member."

The last time a Navy seaman was sentenced to death was in December 1960, according to Lt. Stephen Pietropaoli, a Navy spokesman. Enlisted man Jimmy L. Henderson, a data processing technician, received the death penalty for the 1957 murder of his division officer and the assault of two others, but his sentence was commuted to life imprisonment at hard labor by President Kennedy in 1962.

The Army hanged a soldier in 1961. There have been no military executions since.

In 1972, the Supreme Court ruled death penalty laws unconstitutional. Capital punishment was reinstated in the military by executive order on Jan. 25, 1984, said Lt. Col. Pete Wyro, a Defense Department spokesman -- eight years after it was reinstated in many states.

The Uniform Code of Military Justice provides for the possibility of the death sentence in cases of murder and rape, and also for a list of eight wartime offenses, including aiding the enemy and "misbehavior before the enemy" (cowardice).

In November 1984, Todd A. Dock of Frederick, Md., then a 19-year-old Army private stationed in West Germany, was sentenced to die for the June 12, 1984, robbery and stabbing death of a cabdriver. His mother Carolyn said Dock is on death row at Fort Leavenworth, Kan., and that a motion for a new trial will be filed within the next month based on a diagnosis that Dock has a brain ailment.

Hanging has been the most common form of military execution. A decision has not been made concerning the method that would be used today, Wyro said.

Defense attorney Brooks said he has no doubt of the Navy's intention in Garraway's case. "The Navy brass is pressing to kill Petty Officer Garraway," he said in opening arguments Wednesday, citing the prosecution's refusal to accept Garraway's guilty plea.

Detlev Vagts, a Harvard Law professor who was formerly an Air Force attorney, said in an interview last week, "In the military, they are a little more cautious about accepting pleas."

"Anybody who is in the military would take very seriously a crime against a commanding officer because that is the beginning of the end -- the end of discipline and order," Vagts said.

During the day and a half of testimony last week, James S. Hearon, a petty officer second class, told the court that he had informed Garraway of a rumor that "as long as Lt. Sterner was on board, Petty Officer Garraway would not qualify" to stand watch in the engine room.

According to Hearon, Garraway replied, "I'll kill that expletive ." During cross-examination, however, Hearon said he did not take the remark seriously.

Hearon, who described himself as a friend of Garraway, testified that he thought Garraway was overly sensitive about racial matters. Hearon is white.

The USS Miller was on a training cruise off Bermuda when Sterner was stabbed to death. A Navy spokesman at Newport, the frigate's home base, said that of the 195 enlisted men on board, 30 are black. The ship's commanding officer, Cmdr. William Coleman, is the only black among the 17 officers.

The Navy, along with other branches of the service, was desegregated by an executive order of President Truman in 1948. As of September, 13.5 percent of Navy enlisted personnel and 3.3 percent of the officers were black, Wyro said. In the Army, blacks make up 29.8 percent of the enlisted personnel and 9.8 percent of the officers.

Defense attorney Brooks said that the Ku Klux Klan was active aboard the Miller. Mattie Umrani said her son told her of seeing the word "nigger" written on the lockers of several black seamen and that he believed he and others on the Miller were on a "black hit list." She said her son told her that he, like several black sailors, carried a knife for his protection.

Umrani described Garraway as a loner "with an independent spirit."

"Growing up," she said, "my son never experienced any racial conflicts or discrimination, and I think he didn't know what to do when he encountered it in the Navy."

From the time he was a child growing up in Suitland, Garraway, the youngest of three children and the only boy, was fascinated by the sea and marine life, she said.

"African culture is a special interest of mine, and I influenced my children in that direction, too," she said.

Over her objections, she said, Garraway joined the Navy at 18 before completing Suitland High School. In early 1985, her son suddenly stopped telephoning regularly, Umrani said, and she became concerned. She said she telephoned Sterner several times to find out what was wrong and that the officer assured her that he would talk to her son. She said that in their conversations, Garraway never mentioned Sterner or any trouble he might have been having with him.

"He just commented that there were problems, but he was not going to let it bother him."