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Lawyer: Navy Wants Death For Sailor In Murder Case For Racial Reasons

January 23, 1986

NEWPORT, R.I. (AP) _ Testimony began Wednesday for the court-martial of a black sailor who fatally stabbed a white officer at sea, a case in which the defense says the Navy is seeking the death penalty.

Four officers and four enlisted men were picked for the premeditated murder trial at the Newport Naval Base of Mitchell T. Garraway Jr., 21, of Suitland, Md.

Garraway’s civilian lawyer, Trevor L. Brooks, said the military has decided to seek the death penalty and blamed that decision on racism.

″It’s a black and white situation. Racism, yes,″ Brooks said. ″Top Navy brass is, putting it bluntly, trying to kill Petty Officer Garraway.″

Three of the jurors are black and five are white.

Garraway, a petty officer 3rd class, is being court-martialed for the June 16, 1985, murder of Lt. James K. Sterner, 35, of Levittown, Pa., aboard the frigate USS Miller.

Garraway pleaded guilty last week to charges of murder and carrying a concealed weapon. But Navy prosecutor Lt. Daniel E. O’Toole refused to accept the plea, going ahead with plans to try the case on a charge of premeditated murder.

He has declined comment on why the Navy did not accept the plea and what punishment it is seeking.

A guilty verdict in a court-martial for murder carries a maximum sentence of life imprisonment. Premeditated murder is punishable by either life imprisonment or the death penalty.

The Navy has not used the death penalty since 1849. A seaman was sentenced to death in 1960 for killing a superior officer and assaulting two others. That sentence was commuted to life imprisonment at hard labor.

In his opening statement, O’Toole said the Navy would prove that Garraway twice told a close friend he would kill Sterner if he had the chance and that he had displayed a foot-long knife later used in the slaying.

Garraway was angry because Sterner had suspended a promotion Garraway felt he deserved, O’Toole said.

Brooks acknowledged the promotion was a key element in the slaying but said the act was not premeditated.

″He got up the nerve on the night in question and wanted to speak with Sterner about Sterner’s racism and (the promotion),″ Brooks said.

Garraway’s comments to his friend were simply ″blowing hot air,″ he said.

Brooks said that had the crime been premeditated Garraway ″would have done a better job.″ Rather than stabbing Sterner in the back, Garraway would have slashed his throat and possibly thrown him overboard, the attorney said.

The prosecution’s first witness, Lt. Cmdr. John J. McGarry, testified he found Sterner after the stabbing after hearing what he first thought was laughter, then realized were sounds were screams of pain from a nearby room.

″I’m stabbed, I’m stabbed,″ McGarry quoted Sterner as saying.

O’Toole said he would call his second witness when the court-martial resumes Thursday.

During jury selection, Brooks’ references to what he said was the military’s desire to kill Garraway drew an objection from O’Toole, who told Navy Judge Cmdr. John A. Studer that he has voiced no preference for sentence.

O’Toole did not elaborate, but acknowledged the Navy considered the case a ″capital offense.″

While questioning potential panel members, Brooks indicated he would argue that racism was involved in Garraway’s motive for attacking Sterner in a ship corridor.

″There will be testimony that (Garraway) felt Lt. Sterner was blocking his promotion, and for want of a better word, he was a racist,″ sai Brooks, a New York attorney referred to the case by the National Conference of Black Lawyers.

Because Garraway already has pleaded guilty to murder, the case hinges on whether the Navy can prove it was premeditated, and that ″aggravating circumstances″ warrant the death penalty, Brooks said.

Along with trying to prove the attack was spontaneous, Brooks said he will show there were ″mitigating circumstances″ that make it punishable by only a life sentence, which would make Garraway eligible for parole in about 10 years.

The aggravating circumstance the Navy is trying to prove is that Sterner was ″in the execution of his office″ when he was killed.

The defense will introduce a doctor’s determination that Garraway suffers from a paranoid personality, and point out that he is a first-time offender with a good service record, his lawyer said.

O’Toole said the Navy will call up to 29 witnesses during a court-martial that could last two to three weeks.

Brooks said he would call only two witnesses: Garraway and a Boston psychiatrist who diagnosed him as a paranoid personality.

Garraway sat silently at the defense table during the proceedings, wearing a black dress uniform with the words ″USS Miller″ on the right shoulder. His mother and brother sat with reporters in a small spectators’ section of the third-floor courtroom.

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