Court: Inmate Can Drop Appeals, Be Executed

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Nevada death row inmate Terry Jess Dennis can waive his appeals and be executed Aug. 12 for strangling a woman in Reno in March 1999, a federal appeals court said Friday.

Dennis pleaded guilty to the charges and last year said he did not wish to appeal his punishment. At a 2003 hearing to determine whether he was competent to end his court battle, he told a federal judge that "I took a life and I'm ready to pay for that with mine." Judge Philip Pro said the condemned man was competent to end his appeals, a decision the San Francisco-based 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld Friday.

The Las Vegas federal public defender's office urged the appellate court on Monday to block the execution, arguing the defendant was not competent to withdraw his appeals.

"We conclude that Dennis' capacity to make the decision to forgo appeals is not substantially affected by mental illness," Judge Pamela Rymer wrote for the three-judge appeals panel. The court added that "evidence showing that a prisoner's decision is the product of a mental disease does not show that he lacks the capacity to make a rational choice."

Michael Pescetta, an assistant federal public defender, argued to the court that the execution would amount to state assisted suicide given Dennis' previous failed attempts to take his own life.

Nevada prosecutors countered that Dennis has been found mentally competent by the lower courts, despite his history of alcoholism, failed suicide attempts and a psychiatric report that concluded depression and self-hatred prompted Dennis to refuse any more appeals.

Unless the U.S. Supreme Court intervenes, Dennis is to be executed Aug. 12.

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 ridiculed 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.

Tom Sargeant, a spokesman for state prosecutors, said Nevada had no doubt Dennis was competent to end his appeals and be executed.

"It's his wish that the sentence move forward, he withdrew his plea voluntarily," Sargeant said.

Pescetta did not immediately return calls for comment.

The condemned man, who was 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 show Dennis claimed he had been drinking since he was a teenager, 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. He 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. Lawrence Colwell Jr., 35, was executed March 26 for the 1994 strangling of an elderly tourist in Las Vegas.

The case is Dennis v. Budge, 04-99003.