Man's Trial to Begin in Death of Companion : Justice: The 25-year-old says his ailing benefactor, 73, wanted to die. Police say he killed her for an inheritance.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Retha Pauline Terry, 73, died in her home from an overdose of pain pills in October, 1987. During a subsequent investigation, Terry's companion of 2 1/2 years, Marshall Louis Deerwester, 25, admitted that he administered the fatal dose of medication, police said.

Deerwester maintained that he could not bear to watch the pain of a woman he loved like a mother and that he believed she wanted to end her suffering, police said. But prosecutors argue that Deerwester had another motive: He wanted to kill Terry, a longtime Arleta resident, before she changed her will and disinherited him.

Deerwester, whose trial is scheduled to begin today in San Fernando Superior Court, is charged with first-degree murder, with special allegations that he used poison and killed for financial gain.

Deputy Dist. Atty. Craig R. Richman predicted that the trial will have "all the makings of a television movie," since it will delve into the issue of euthanasia and a relationship between an ailing, older woman and a young man.

Terry and Deerwester met in spring, 1985, at the First Baptist Church of Arleta, where Terry attended services weekly and participated in other church activities, her friends said.

The elderly woman was recovering from a foot injury and needed someone to help her with chores, drive her around town and run errands, Richman said.

Deerwester recently had completed three years in the Marine Corps and was living with his younger brother in a van in the Hansen Dam Recreation Area, said his lawyer, Tim Murphy, a deputy public defender.

Richman and Murphy agree that what began as an arrangement of convenience gradually grew into more.

Deerwester's mother died of cancer when he was a young child, and he came to consider Terry his "best friend and a mother," Murphy said. And her friends say Terry, who never married and had no children, found in the young man the constant companionship and attention she craved.

In August, 1986, Terry signed a new will naming Deerwester the sole recipient of her $150,000 estate.

But as time passed, the relationship became volatile, Terry's friends said.

The two argued about details of their living arrangements and about Deerwester's younger brother, who sometimes stayed at the house, Murphy said. Terry also did not like Deerwester's girlfriend, said attorneys for both sides.

Terry sometimes threatened to throw Deerwester out, said the Rev. Frank Ward, pastor of the First Baptist Church, but relented after the young man begged her to let him stay.

On Oct. 8, 1987, Terry again threatened to evict Deerwester during an argument about his girlfriend. Deerwester hit the elderly woman in the eye, knocking her to the ground and breaking several of her ribs, prosecutors said.

Three days later, Richman said, Deerwester gave Terry a lethal dose of pain medication to prevent her from writing him out of the will.

Terry had considered altering the will to leave her estate to the church and had discussed the matter at length with church officials. On the day she died, Richman said, Terry called a church leader, saying that she wanted to talk about the new will the next day. Deerwester was at home and heard the conversation, authorities said.

In a taped confession, however, Deerwester denied that he had money in mind when he gave Terry the medication. He said that Terry was in tremendous pain from a variety of maladies, and that he believed she wished to die to end her suffering, police said.

"He admitted he gave her too much medication. He said he hated to see her in that amount of pain, and that she had mentioned that if it wasn't a sin to commit suicide, she would do it," Ervin Youngblood, a Los Angeles Police Department investigator, testified during a preliminary hearing.

"He said he believed that she wanted to die but did not want to commit suicide," Youngblood said. "He said she wanted someone to just take her and pour half a bottle of pills down her throat."

Richman, however, said Terry's health was not that bad. She had diabetes, a kidney problem and was moderately obese, along with the bad foot. But none of the problems were incapacitating, he said.

"She was not terminally ill," Richman said. "She had the normal illness that one would expect of someone her age."

If convicted of murder with the special allegations, Deerwester could be sentenced to a maximum of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole. Richman said the trial could last at least a month.

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