A young woman accused of beating to death a 17-month-old Clinton girl four years ago testified in Prince George's County Circuit Court yesterday that the child died after being "dropped" into her crib.

Gina Louise Vargas, 27, testified that the first two times the little girl, Nicol Louise Ware, cried early in the morning of Nov. 25, 1995, she put the girl in her three-foot-high blue crib. Vargas testified that she brought the girl--the child of the man who was then her boyfriend--into the bedroom with her twice, becoming increasingly frustrated.

The third time she took Nicol to the crib, Vargas testified, "I was holding her in my arms, and I dropped her. She fell out of my arms."

As she testified under direct examination by defense attorney J. Burkhardt Beale, Vargas demonstrated, leaning over the crib with her arms extended. She testified that the child dropped a matter of inches, not feet. Earlier in the evening, the child had fallen down a flight of stairs, Vargas testified.

Prince George's homicide detectives arrested Vargas in February, after the death of Nicol was ruled a homicides by D.C. Medical Examiner Jonathan L. Arden. He reopened her case and three unrelated ones after The Washington Post published articles detailing how often the true cause of death is missed in young children.

According to court testimony, Vargas called 911 about 1 a.m. Nov. 25, 1995, to report that the little girl had tumbled down stairs. Nicol died in Children's Hospital in the District two days later.

Vargas's portrayal of how Nicol sustained her injuries was in sharp contrast to the testimony of a doctor who treated Nicol before she died.

Nicol was already recovering from broken bones in both of her legs and numerous bruises all over her body when she was assaulted for the final time, resulting in a head wound so severe that the right side of her brain turned to mush, according to Steven J. Schiff, a neurosurgeon and professor at George Mason University who cared for the girl at Children's Hospital.

"This child had a particularly serious beating and died from those injuries," Schiff testified under direct examination by Assistant State's Attorney John Maloney. "It's difficult to produce a brain injury of this magnitude from shaking someone. . . . It takes a considerable degree of force--such as those commonly seen in high-speed automobile wrecks."

Vargas is charged with second-degree murder, child abuse resulting in the death of a minor and manslaughter. The case is scheduled to continue today. Vargas is forgoing her right to a jury trial; her guilt or innocence will be determined by Circuit Court Judge Maureen Lamasney.