A federal appeals court was urged Monday to let a Reno lawyer intervene on a next-friend basis in an effort to block the scheduled Aug. 12 execution of Terry Jess Dennis for strangling a woman in Reno in March 1999.
A three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, in an hour-long telephone conference call, listened to the plea and to opposing arguments from the state attorney general's office.
Michael Pescetta, an assistant federal public defender, argued the execution would amount to state assisted suicide given Dennis' previous failed attempts - as many as a dozen - to take his own life.
But Deputy Attorney General Bob Wieland countered that Dennis has been found mentally competent by the courts, and his past mental illness is irrelevant.
Pescetta, arguing for Reno attorney Karla Butko who sought the next-friend status, said the circuit court must consider the statement of a psychiatrist that the death row inmate's desire to die stems from his mental illness. He added there's no other expert testimony to contradict that.
Wieland countered that the court records show that Dennis fully understands the consequences of his decision against appealing his death sentence, and the next-friend petition should be rejected.
Dennis, 57, was convicted of killing Ilona Strumanis, 51, an Eastern bloc immigrant who he had recently met, during a vodka-and-beer binge in a motel room. He told police he strangled Strumanis with a belt after she made fun of him for being unable to perform sexually and questioned his claim that he killed enemy soldiers while serving as an Air Force clerk in Saigon.
Dennis, who has a history of alcoholism, mental illness and failed suicide attempts, has said he'd rather die then spend the rest of his life behind bars. A psychiatrist's report said depression and self-hatred prompted Dennis to refuse any more appeals.
Dennis, raised in Washington state, has been described by former classmates and friends as a nice person who sang in his high school choir but who also got hooked on drugs and alcohol as a teenager.
Court records state Dennis claimed he had been drinking since he was 13 or 14 years old, had been jailed at age 14 for marijuana use, and had made his first suicide attempt in 1966.
Dennis was convicted in 1979 in Snohomish County Superior Court, Wash., for assault and also had a 1984 conviction in the same court for arson and assault, and spent about 2 1/2 years in prison before moving to Reno in 1995.
Dennis' execution would be the second this year in Nevada. His close friend on death row, Lawrence Colwell Jr., 35, was executed March 26 for the 1994 strangling of an elderly tourist in Las Vegas.