Montana homicide case suspect seeks to avoid trial

SIDNEY, Mont. — A Colorado man’s bid to avoid trial and a potential death sentence in the killing of an eastern Montana teacher on Monday goes before a state judge, who will to decide if the defendant is incompetent due to mental disability.

His attorneys say 24-year-old Michael Keith Spell has the mental capacities of a first-grader and is unfit for trial. If Judge Richard Simonton agrees, Spell could be sent to a state institution and potentially eligible for eventual release.

He’s charged with murder in the death of Sherry Arnold in January 2012. The teacher disappeared as she was jogging near her home in Sidney, Mont., and her body was buried in North Dakota. An accomplice pleaded guilty under a plea deal that calls for him to testify against Spell.

The case has highlighted the steep social costs of a Northern Plains oil boom that drew the men to the region looking for work.

Crime rates spiked in eastern Montana and neighboring parts of North Dakota over the past several years, and the killing of the popular, 43-year-old Sidney High School math teacher stood out for its violent, random nature.

Spell underwent a two-month mental evaluation after he was committed to Montana State Hospital last November under court order. A report on his mental fitness was sealed by the court and he has since been returned to jail.

Court documents filed by the defense said doctors for the state diagnosed Spell as mentally disabled.

But it was unclear whether they believed he should stand trial. That’s likely to emerge at the two-day hearing in Sidney, which also will offer the first glimpse of how aggressively prosecutors intend to push for a trial. Richland County Attorney Mike Weber so far has been largely silent on the issue.

Even if the disability claim is accepted by the court, Spell still could be found competent, said Margaret Nygren, executive director of the American Association on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities.

“Intellectual disability is a continuum,” Nygren said. “It’s certainly possible someone could have intellectual disability at the higher end and participate in their defense.”

Court documents, including law enforcement affidavits, say the two men arrived in Montana after a drug-fueled drive from Parachute, Colo., when they spotted Arnold along a Sidney street, and that Spell choked or otherwise asphyxiated her during an attempted abduction.

Hundreds of people searched for Arnold after her disappearance. Her body was found more than two months later when co-defendant Lester Van Waters, Jr. led authorities to a shallow gravesite near a farm outside Williston, N.D.

Van Waters pleaded guilty last summer under a deal that calls for him to testify against Spell if the case goes to trial.

Spell implicated Waters as the killer in an FBI interview following his arrest. Waters, 50, has a lengthy criminal record and served several prison stints in his native Florida before meeting up with Spell in Colorado.

His attorneys have not denied Spell’s involvement in the events leading up to Arnold’s death, but say there is no “conclusive evidence” he was the one who killed her.

Defense attorney Al Avignone said he expects as many as four mental disability experts to testify at the hearing, including staff from the state hospital and two experts for the defense. Spell is not expected to appear at the hearing.

Designations of mentally disabled depend on three factors — intellectual capacity, commonly measured by IQ score; the ability to perform basic life functions; and evidence that the disability was present before the age of 18.

Spell was declared incompetent to proceed twice in Colorado — in a 2010 drug case and a 2007 case when he was a juvenile.

Determining a defendant’s competency becomes much harder when the disability is not considered severe, according to experts. That’s the case with Spell, who worked various jobs and fathered a child with his girlfriend before his arrest, but according to his attorneys has consistently scored below 75 on IQ tests.

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