Former Mental Patient Seeks Death in Nevada Chamber

By  | 

Old friends and family say Terry Jess Dennis, facing execution for strangling a woman in Reno, was a nice boy who sang in the school choir but got hooked on drugs and alcohol. He's been in and out of prison, repeatedly tried to kill himself, suffered from mental disorders - and now would rather die than live out his life behind bars.

Unless he changes his mind, Dennis will get his wish Thursday when he's scheduled to be led into Nevada State Prison's death chamber.

Dennis, 57, who worked on and off as a window installer before being imprisoned, withdrew an appeal that could have helped him avoid a lethal injection for a March 1999 murder.

He was convicted of killing Ilona Strumanis, 51, an Eastern bloc immigrant who he had recently met. The two spent several days in a motel room on a beer-and-vodka binge.

Dennis told police he strangled Strumanis with a belt after she made fun of him when he was unable to perform sexually and questioned his claim that he killed enemy soldiers while serving as an Air Force clerk in Saigon.

Efforts by attorneys trying to stop the execution reached the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeal. The lawyers noted a psychiatrist who met with Dennis said depression and self-hatred prompted the inmate to refuse any more appeals. But the circuit court held July 30 that Dennis could waive his appeals and is not so "substantially affected" by mental illness that he's incapable of making a rational choice.

Dennis told a Reno judge he'd rather die "than continue to live and be a doddering old man in prison."

His 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.

Two weeks before Colwell died, the state Supreme Court let Dennis withdraw his appeal, noting the convict repeatedly opposed any efforts to stop his execution. Justices also said there's substantial evidence to support a lower court finding that he's competent to make a rational choice to drop "possibly lifesaving litigation."

In an earlier ruling, justices called Strumanis' murder "a calculated, cold-blooded and unprovoked killing." A Reno police report states he told investigators, "I felt like I was taking her out of her misery."

At a December court hearing in Reno, justices said Dennis denied telling a psychiatrist that he had hallucinations, although he said he had attempted suicide in the past. He also said he had been receiving medications in prison that had "pretty much squared (him) away."

The psychiatrist's report said, among other things, that Dennis' desire to seek the death penalty and refuse further appeals stemmed from "his depressed state and self-hatred."

As a child growing up in a Seattle suburb, Dennis suffered physical and sexual abuse at the hands of his adoptive parents, his lawyers said. The attorneys said he had attempted suicide many times, suffered from several mental disorders, heard voices and had been a heavy user of both illicit and prescription drugs.

The attorneys also said that two months before strangling Strumanis he was admitted to the Veterans' Administration hospital in Reno, where he told staffers he was trying to drink himself to death and had thought about killing a woman. He was "cut loose" by the hospital, the lawyers said.

Dennis' second wife, who he left in 1990 but never divorced, said she's sad he's being executed "because he had so much potential that he could have used for good."

Bonnie Dennis said her husband was funny and smart, sang and played the guitar, and "enjoyed doing Elvis at amateur night." But when he drank she said "he could turn on you in a second with hands ready to strangle the life from you."

Dennis' first wife, who asked not to be named, said in a telephone interview that he wrote to her to say he wanted to be executed - and that may be "the best thing."

"He has spent a good many years in prison already," she said. "It's a horrible, ugly, nasty place to live, and anyone who has no chance of getting out has a right to make that decision."

If Dennis remained in prison and eventually managed to get a parole, "he would go back to drinking, and something else horrible would happen," she said.

"If it wasn't for the alcohol and the path he led, he would have been a decent human being," she said. "But it has been so many years and he has gone down the wrong path so horribly that there's nothing to be done now."

Sally Niver, a former high school classmate, said Dennis sang in the school choir and was "a really nice person - but he got hooked up with drugs." Until that point, she added, "a nicer guy you would never hope to meet."

Court records show 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 of as many as a dozen suicide attempts 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. He spent about 2 1/2 years in prison as a result before he moved to Reno in 1995.