A woman soldier was sentenced to eight years' hard labor today following a dramatic presentence admission of guilt in the death of her homosexual lover and the testimony of the defendant's shaken father.
"I accept my responsibility for the part I played in [her lover's] death," Spec. 5 Nancy Jean Varraso, 23, told a military jury in a statement ready by her lawyer before she was sentenced. ". . . it is a nightmare I will have to live with the rest of my life."
Varraso's father, testifying on his daughter's behalf before sentencing, chokes back tears and then sobbed openly, saying, "It [homosexuality] is immoral, but she's my daughter and I have to protect her. I love her." He said he learned of his daughter's homosexuality only after she had been charged with murder.
Varraso -- the first woman soldier to be court-martialed on such a charge since the Korean War -- smiled weakly at a friend, shook her head and said, "Whew," after the sentence for second-degree murder was announced in the courtroom here at Fort Eustis, 180 miles southeast of Washington.
She had faced a maximum penalty of life at hard labor.
Varraso was convicted by the panel yesterday following testimony she helped her lover, Pfc. Tammy Meza-Luna, 19, of Rochestr, Minn., hang herself in the woods at Fort Story in Virginia Beach. According to testimony, Varraso tied Meza-Luna's hands with a webbed military belt, slipped a thick rope noose around her neck and left. The noose was at the end of a long rope tied to a tree, and Meza-Luna strangled.
Testimony showed Varraso and Meza-Luna had quarreled over Meza-Luna's sexual attachment to a third woman soldier also stationed at Fort Story.
Varraso will be eligible for parole after serving 2 1/2 years at Fort Leavenworth, Kan., court officials said.
"She's ecstatic and I'm very happy," said Martin S. Cosgrove of Quincy, Mass., the civilian attorney who defended Varraso. "I thought they would bury her. The best deal [the prosecution] offered was 15 years on a charge of second-degree murder."
By contrast, Capt. Keith Hodges, who led the Army's prosecution team and was handling his first murder case, walked quickly from the courtroom after the sentencing, which will automatically be appealed to the Army Court of Military Review.
"I'm very pleased with the verdict," said a glum Hodges, who had argued that Varraso should be convicted of premeditated murder, which carries a mandatory sentence of life imprisonment. "I think the sentence is compatible with the facts in this case. Obviously, some premediated murders are more serious than others."
Today's verdict capped one of the Army's most sensational court-martials, which featured explicit and lurid testimony about the homosexual triangle and life in a small Army unit prosecutors called "rather strange" and "something out of Walt Disney."
Prosecutors charged that Varraso eagerly helped Meza-Luna commit suicide because the two were fighting over the affections of a third female soldier also assigned to the 309th Transportation Detachment.
Varraso, in a statement her defense lawyers tried unsuccessfully to suppress, told military police after the death she helped Meza-Luna commit suicide at her request.
In today's statement, read to the jury prior to sentencing, Varraso said, "My conscience has bothered me every day . . . I realize I must be punished." She asked the jury to consider, "the personal hell I have gone through already and the tourment my family has endured."
That torment was evident when Varraso's father, Joseph, a lieutenant with the Quincy, Mass., fire department who has attended the trial with his wife, took the stand on his daughter's behalf.
In a voice which first cracked and later broke with emotion, the stocky, gray-haired Varraso said that he learned his daughter had been changed with murder when a reporter called his home two days after the killing. c"I thought it was a joke," Joseph Varraso told the courtroom packed with soldiers and reporters. "I couldn't believe it."
When defense attorney Capt. Greg McCormack asked Varraso about his daughter's homosexuality, Varraso replied, sobbing, "I don't believe in that stuff, I learned about it through the newspapers. It's immoral, but she's my daughter and I have to protect her. I love her."
Nancy Varraso, who had remained expressionless even during graphic testimony about her sex life, wept quietly.
Several defense witnesses, among them some of Varraso's superior officers, testified she was a fine soldier who had earned a Good Conduct Medal during her four-year Army career. Defense attorneys stressed her high score on military intelligence tests and the fact she had completed a year at Regis College, a small Catholic girls school in suburban Boston, before enlisting.
But Army prosecutor Capt. Richard Pelletier urged the jury to disregard Varraso's clean military record. "The conduct that brings us here today occurred off duty," he said. "Nancy Varraso is responsible for what occurred."