Terry Jess Dennis
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Terry Jess Dennis, an inmate of the Nevada State Prison, was one of those voluntarily executed by lethal injection at the Nevada State Prison in Carson City, Nevada on August 12, 2004, at the age of 57. Dennis was found guilty of the 1999 murder of Ilona Straumanis, a 51 year old. Dennis, who was 52 years old when he committed the capital crime, was sentenced to death on July 20, 1999. He was the 923rd execution in US since 1976.
On the afternoon of March 9, 1999, Dennis, who was unemployed and homeless, telephoned Reno Police Department (RPD) Dispatch and told the Reno, Nevada dispatcher that he had killed a woman and her body was in his room at a local motel. Dennis stated that he was in the same room watching television and would wait for police to arrive. Dennis also stated that dispatchers should send a coroner, as "the bitch had been dead for three or four days."
An RPD detective responded to Dennis's motel room, contacted Dennis, and asked whether he had any weapons. Dennis stated that he had used his hands to kill the woman and did not have any weapons. He agreed to be interviewed and was transported to the police department.
At the police department, detectives advised Dennis of his Miranda rights. Dennis waived his rights and agreed to be interviewed. When questioned about the murder, Dennis stated that his memory was unclear on certain details because he had consumed about a fifth of vodka a day for the past week.
Following the interview Dennis's blood alcohol level was tested and determined to be 0.112 percent and descending. And while this amount of alcohol would have caused Dennis to stagger and slur his speech, he did not dispute the knowing and voluntary nature of his statements.
During the interview Dennis reported that since March 3 he had been staying at the motel where the murder occurred. Two or three nights into his stay, he left his room to go to a local saloon. On his way to the saloon he met a woman, later identified as Ilona Straumanis, a Latvian immigrant. When they met, Straumanis had bruises about her eyes and told Dennis another man had beaten her. Straumanis accompanied Dennis to the saloon and later, to Dennis's motel room. Thereafter and until the murder, both Dennis and Straumanis remained in an intoxicated state, staying in Dennis's room, except for a shared meal out and Dennis's outings to get more alcohol.
On the day he killed Straumanis, Dennis left the room briefly because Straumanis was asking too many personal questions. Upon his return to the room he and Straumanis engaged in a conversation about whether Dennis had ever killed anyone during his service in Vietnam—she accusing Dennis of being too kind to be capable of killing. Dennis then killed Straumanis as he and she were "sort of" "making love."
Dennis began strangling Straumanis with a belt as he felt somewhat aroused by her struggling, and as she was "fading," he engaged in anal intercourse with her. During the act Dennis took the belt off and used his hands to choke her. He then suffocated Straumanis by covering her nose and mouth, making sure that she was not breathing and that "it was all done." Dennis was not certain whether he finished the sexual act once she was dead. It took five or ten minutes to kill Straumanis and Dennis checked her pulse afterward. He felt that he "had to make sure," so he "took [his] time." After the murder Dennis covered Straumanis and slept in the other bed, at times leaving the room to go to a local casino or the store for more liquor.
Dennis admitted that although he had been drinking heavily prior to the murder and had stopped taking the medications prescribed for his mental health problems, he knew "exactly what [he] was doing" at the time of the murder. Dennis killed Straumanis primarily because she doubted whether he was capable of killing, she challenged his sexual performance that was affected by his drinking, and because he knew that he could kill her—she was "nobody" to him.
Dennis explained that he was probably thinking that Straumanis needed to be "put out of her misery" from the time he first met her and realized that she was "pathetic." He stated, "When I first met her, I had that *** idea that if you know I can talk her into *** coming back to my crib then done deal. Done deal." He saw himself as a "predator" and Straumanis as a "victim," and he felt that killing her was "the thing to do." Dennis had recently "picked up" another woman intending to do the same thing to her, but she got frightened and left him before he could finish. From that experience Dennis had learned to "take it a little slower," and he did so with Straumanis trying to charm her into staying with him.
Dennis was determined to kill Straumanis regardless of whether she survived his initial attack. He had wanted to kill someone for a long time and he felt at peace with killing Straumanis. Dennis stated that he did not care about anybody, including himself. He knew murder was wrong and did not care. Dennis also told detectives, "If I didn't get stopped this would not be the last time that I would do something like this, because I found it exciting. I actually enjoyed it."
At the conclusion of the interview, detectives formally placed Dennis under arrest. Meanwhile another RPD detective searched Dennis's motel room pursuant to a search warrant, where he discovered Straumanis's nude dead body underneath a blanket on one of the two beds in the room. The body was found in a prone position with spread legs. A pillow underneath Straumanis's pelvis caused her buttocks to protrude upward. The detective also discovered a leather belt on the floor of the motel room and numerous empty beer and vodka containers along with other debris.
Conviction and Trial
A March 10 autopsy showed that Straumanis had died between three and seven days earlier as a result of asphyxia due to neck compression, most likely by strangulation; her neck bore a rectangular-shaped injury. Other injuries were determined to have occurred sometime within the few days prior to her death, including a small abrasion on the forehead, a bruise on the back of one thigh, and a fractured sternum. Changes caused by decomposition of the body made determination of the existence of any sexual assault difficult and although her anus was dilated, there was no evidence of injury to the perianal skin or distal rectum. Testing revealed that Straumanis had a staggeringly high blood-alcohol level of 0.37 percent, which would have caused unconsciousness and possibly death.
The State charged Dennis with one count of first-degree murder with the use of a deadly weapon and subsequently filed notice of its intent to seek the death penalty alleging four aggravating circumstances. A psychiatrist concluded that, although Dennis was clinically depressed, he was competent to stand trial and assist in his defense.
On April 16, 1999, Dennis entered a guilty plea in the Second Judicial District Court, Washoe County pursuant to a written plea agreement explaining that he had been in prison twice before and did not consider living in prison to be " living at all." He did not want to "waste away" in prison for the remainder of his life and would rather "get it over faster than that." Dennis was sentenced to death three months later by a three-judge panel.
Prior Medical and Criminal History
In 1995 Dennis was diagnosed with chronic depressive disorder, recurrent depressive disorder, suicidal ideation, antisocial personality disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, bipolar disorder, and substance-induced psychotic disorder.
Dennis had been previously convicted of three separate felonies involving the use or threat of violence—a 1979 conviction for second-degree assault, a 1984 conviction for second-degree assault, and a 1984 conviction for second-degree arson.
- Michelangelo Delfino and Mary E. Day, Death Penalty USA 2003 -2004, (2008), 298-302.
- Dennis v. Budge (2004) 542 U.S. 959.
- Dennis v. State (2000) 13 P.3d 434.