BILLINGS, Mont. (AP) – Attorneys for a Colorado man charged with killing an eastern Montana teacher filed court papers Friday saying his mental disabilities render him unfit to stand trial in a case that could carry the death penalty.
Defense attorneys asked state district Judge Richard Simonton to commit Michael Keith Spell, 24, to the Montana State Hospital or another state facility for up to 60 days to undergo a mental examination.
The Parachute, Colo., man faces a felony murder charge in the January 2012 death of Sherry Arnold, a Sidney High School math teacher.
Court records obtained by The Associated Press show that Spell was declared incompetent by a Colorado judge in 2010 in a Garfield County, Colo. drug case. A subsequent order for Spell to undergo treatment was still pending at the time of his arrest in the Arnold murder.
Prosecutors in Montana have said they intend to seek the death penalty for Spell if he’s convicted.
But Spell’s attorneys on Friday said that if he’s found unfit for trial, under state law the charges against him could be dismissed and he would face involuntary commitment to state custody. If he was determined in the future to no longer pose a danger, he could eventually be released, defense attorney Al Avignone said.
Avignone said Friday’s notice was filed after the defense received hundreds of pages of mental health records on Spell that were handed over by prosecutors.
“Mr. Spell reads at a first-grade level and his vocabulary is extremely limited and he doesn’t write,” Avignone said, adding that there’s “no doubt” his client is disabled.
Co-defendant Lester Van Waters, Jr. pleaded guilty in August. A deal with prosecutors calls for him to be spared the death penalty and receive 100 years in prison in exchange for testifying against Spell.
Arnold’s sister, Rhonda Whited-Rupp, said Friday that she believes justice will prevail. “My opinion is that it’s a blessing they both were caught,” she said. “God will take care of the end result.”
The Richland County Attorney’s Office has opposed a separate attempt to declare Spell ineligible for the death penalty.
The defense cited a 2002 Supreme Court ruling that forbids states from executing the mentally or intellectually disabled under the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment.
Spell and Van Waters came to Montana looking for work in the Bakken oil patch along the North Dakota border. Waters said during an August change of plea hearing that the pair consumed large amounts of cocaine during their drive from Colorado. They were in Sidney looking for a woman to have sex with, Waters said, when they saw Arnold, who was out on her morning run.
Authorities say Spell killed Arnold, 43, by either choking her or holding her face in a puddle.
Spell and Van Waters later buried her body near Williston, N.D. It was not found for more than two months, when Waters led FBI agents to the site and said Spell was the killer.
The case spurred federal prosecutors to convene a retreat last year for law enforcement to craft a strategy to deal with rising crime in the Bakken region.
Spell’s trial is slated to begin Jan. 6 in Glendive, where it was relocated from Sidney after defense attorneys claimed their client would not get a fair trial in Arnold’s hometown.
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