A U.S. Navy sailor who admitted killing a homosexual shipmate escaped a possible death sentence Monday when a court-martial judge accepted the sailor's plea of guilty of having committed the crime "with intent to do great bodily harm."
The judge, Navy Cmdr. David P. Holcombe, impaneled a jury of eight Navy and Marine Corps officers, two of them women, to decide on the punishment for Airman Apprentice Terry M. Helvey, 21, of Eloise, Mich. He could be condemned to prison for life.
Helvey was initially charged with premeditated murder in the beating death of Seaman Allen R. Schindler last Oct. 27 in a public restroom near Sasebo Naval Base, the port for the Belleau Wood, the ship on which both men served. Helvey could have been sentenced to death upon conviction on the original charge.
In the process of accepting Helvey's plea Monday, the judge disclosed that a plea bargain for the lesser plea had been made between the defense and the prosecution April 27.
The judge also accepted pleas of guilty to two counts of assault on Navy shore patrolmen and of making false statements and a plea of innocent to a charge of obstructing justice.
The military prosecutor, Marine Capt. Stephen Marchioro, said, "We're going to ask for life in prison (for Helvey)."
The mothers of Helvey and of Schindler, 22, of Chicago Heights, Ill., both watched in court while Helvey gave a series of clipped "yes, sir" replies as Holcombe read to him each of the provisions of the plea bargain and recited Helvey's rights under it.
It was the second time that Navy prosecutors had struck a bargain in a case that has become a cause celebre for gay rights advocates in the United States. Last November, they reduced a jail sentence of one year to four months in prison for Airman Apprentice Charles A. Vins, 20, of Sturgis, Mich., in exchange for an agreement to testify against Helvey.
Marchioro disclosed Monday that he does not intend to call Vins to testify in the penalty phase of the trial. Vins, a witness, was jailed and discharged from the Navy for failing to report the crime.
Air Force Maj. Bernard Doyle and Navy Lt. Jacques Smith, the defense attorneys, indicated they would seek leniency for Helvey because he had been drinking.
Four of five prospective jurors who were dismissed in Monday's process of impaneling a jury for the penalty phase said they would not regard intoxication as a mitigating circumstance.
Marchioro told prospective jurors that the sexual orientation of Schindler, who told his commander he was gay a month before he was killed, "may have played a part in the crime." But he told the jurors that Schindler was "attacked and murdered without any provocation whatsoever."
Prospective jurors were asked if they considered a man's life "less valuable than others' because he is homosexual" and whether a national debate on the "gay ban in the military" would affect their verdict. All answered negatively.
Once impaneled, the jury heard testimony from witnesses who said that Helvey and Vins were drinking with two other unidentified Americans in a park shortly before the crime occurred.
But Monday's session ended without any disclosure of what may have precipitated Helvey's attack on Schindler.
An autopsy showed that Schindler's skull was crushed, all but two of his ribs were broken and his sexual organs were lacerated. His face also was mutilated beyond recognition.