Lawyers Seek Supreme Court Review of Execution Case

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A lawyer trying to stop the 9 p.m. Thursday execution of convicted Nevada murderer Terry Jess Dennis petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court on Monday following failed efforts to win a stay from the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

Michael Pescetta, an assistant federal defender, filed the high court petition after losing a bid for an 11-judge "en banc" review by the San Francisco-based circuit court on Friday.

A week earlier, a 3-judge panel of the circuit court also ruled against a stay, saying Dennis - who has said he wants to die - can waive his appeal rights and be executed for strangling a woman in Reno in March 1999.

At a 2003 hearing to determine whether he was competent, Dennis told a federal judge that "I took a life and I'm ready to pay for that with mine."

Pescetta, arguing for Reno attorney Karla Butko who sought next-friend legal status, said the 9th Circuit Court didn't follow the standard required by the Supreme Court in determining whether a person is competent or not - and therefore needing next-friend help.

"The uncontradicted expert evidence ... established that, while Mr. Dennis may be capable of making a choice to submit to execution, he is not capable of making that choice rationally," Pescetta said.

The attorney also said the case is "entirely unlike" others in which "next friend" evidence was rejected because of clashing expert opinions. In this case, he said the only psychiatrist to examine Dennis said he was mentally ill.

Pescetta also said the circuit court stressed Dennis' outward demeanor as a sign of his competence, adding the ruling "means, to put it crudely, that no one need ever be found incompetent unless he looks 'crazy' to a lay person."

Dennis has "every reason to attempt to appear as competent as possible, in order to gain his objective of being executed," said Pescetta. He said the psychiatrist reported Dennis has tried to kill himself many times and now wants to use the state as a "vehicle for suicide."

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

Dennis, 57, pleaded guilty to 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.

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.