The Navy has told Terry Helvey, 21, an airman apprentice charged with killing a gay sailor, that its lawyers would pursue the death penalty if he pleads not guilty in a case that has become a rallying point for gay-rights advocates, Mr. Helvey's mother said yesterday.
Regene Helvey's comments during a telephone interview with the Chicago Tribune came hours after her son was charged with murder in the beating of Allen Schindler, 22, the gay sailor from Chicago Heights, Ill., who was killed in Japan last October.
Mrs. Helvey, a factory worker in Fredericktown, Mo., who has not commented extensively on the case, said she talked with her son on the phone after she learned of the charges through news outlets.
"He said he was told if he pleaded innocent, he'll get the death penalty; if he pleads guilty they'll give him 15 to 40 years. He said that he will plead innocent because he is innocent and he'd rather get the death penalty than spend 20 to 40 years in jail having everyone think he is guilty," Mrs. Helvey said.
The Navy said in Japan yesterday that Mr. Helvey was charged with murder after an investigation of Mr. Schindler's death supervised by the commanding officer of the USS Belleau Wood, an amphibious assault ship that Schindler, Helvey and Charles E. Vins, another sailor implicated in case, were stationed on.
Mr. Vins earlier pleaded guilty to lesser charges in the case. He was given a dishonorable discharge and a one-year jail term, later reduced to four months, in return for his testimony against Mr. Helvey.
The charges against Mr. Helvey include murder, two counts of assault against shore patrolmen on the night of the murder, obstructing justice and two counts of false testimony.
Gay-rights advocates say Mr. Schindler's death illustrates the danger and hostility homosexuals face in the military at a time when the Clinton administration is moving to lift a ban on gays in the armed services.
An autopsy report on Mr. Schindler's death said he had a crushed skull, badly beaten face, mutilated genitals and numerous broken ribs when he was found after an assault in a public restroom in Sasebo, Japan, near where the Belleau Wood was moored.
The Navy has declined to comment on whether the military believes the death was a hate crime. Navy officials also didn't comment on Mrs. Helvey's statements in the interview.