Montana Murder Case: Is Suspect Mentally Competent?


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In a Montana murder case that has compelled the attention of the national media corps, the fate of a man accused of murdering a school teacher hinges on more than if he committed the act—it’s whether he is mentally competent enough to stand trial.

According to via the Associated Press, a psychiatrist for the prosecutors said that Michael Keith Spell, 24, is mentally competent enough to stand trial, a sharp contrast from psychiatrists for the defense, which had portrayed Spell as having the intelligence level of an 11-year-old with a proneness to distort the past.

Virginia Hill, the psychiatrist for the prosecutors, said Spell’s disability was mild and that he was observed playing video games, doing laundry, and even manipulating other patients during his two-month stay at Montana State Hospital.

The case has taken place as crime rates have spiked in eastern Montana and parts of North Dakota due to the influx of people because of the oil boom. Spell is charged with killing Sherry Arnold in 2012, a high school teacher in the community.

Spell could face the death penalty if convicted. A co-defendant has already pleaded guilty after making a deal with prosecutors to testify against Spell.

Craig Beaver, a Boise, Idaho neuropsychologist, testified for the defense that Spell has a tendency to distort past events, which would make it difficult for him to mount a defense in court. He also said he was able to document Spell’s mental shortcomings dating back to when the defendant was five years old.

Spell was declared incompetent to stand trial in Colorado during a 2010 drug case and in 2007 when he was a juvenile.

Court documents, researched by Christian Science Monitor via the Associated Press, say the defendants arrived in Montana after a drug-fueled drive from Colorado when they spotted Sherry Arnold walking alongside the road. She died after being choked or otherwise asphyxiated in an abduction attempt.

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