Montana Murder Case Suspect Seeks to Avoid Trial

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Prosecutors are expected to call on doctors from the Montana state mental hospital Tuesday to support their claim that a Colorado man is fit to stand trial in the killing of a teacher in the heart of the Bakken oil patch.

Defense experts testified Monday that 24-year-old Michael Keith Spell is not fit to stand trial because he is prone to distort the past and he displays the intelligence of an 11-year-old, and that he is not capable of understanding a case against him. Testimony also revealed that doctors suspected Keith was "pretending" when he could not answer some questions during a recent mental fitness evaluation.

Richland County Attorney Mike Weber said he plans to call psychiatrist Virginia Hill and psychologist Timothy Casey to the stand Tuesday as a competency hearing for Spell continues in Sidney. The two evaluated Spell during a two-month stay at the hospital in Warm Springs.

Judge Richard Simonton will have to determine from the competing claims if Spell is incompetent to stand trial because of mental disability, as his lawyers argue.

Spell is charged with the attempted kidnapping and murder of 43-year-old Sherry Arnold, a Sidney High School math teacher. Arnold disappeared in January 2012 after going out for a morning jog, and her body was found more than two months later, buried in a shallow grave in a rural area of neighboring North Dakota.

Craig Beaver, a Boise, Idaho-based neuropsychologist testifying for the defense, said Spell was prone to distort past events, which would interfere with any criminal defense he may mount in his case.

"Everyone that has evaluated Mr. Michael Spell, up until the Montana State Hospital, has found that he had intellectual limitations," Beaver said.

Beaver indicated that there is documented evidence of Spell's mental shortcomings dating back to when Spell was five years old, undercutting the idea that Spell was exaggerating his condition in order to avoid trial.

The defendant was declared incompetent to proceed by courts in Colorado twice before, during a 2010 drug case and 2007 case, when he was a juvenile.

Spell implicated co-defendant Lester Van Waters Jr. as Arnold's killer in an interview with FBI after his arrest.

According to Court documents, which include law enforcement affidavits and  Waters, the defendants arrived in Montana after a drive from Parachute, Colo., in search of drugs. They spotted Arnold on a Sidney street. The victim died after Spell asphyxiated her while he attempted to abduct her, the documents state.

Spell could face the death penalty if he is convicted. If Simonton agrees with the defense's claim that Spell is unfit to stand trial, Spell could avoid trial and be sent to a state institution, where he could become eligible for eventual release.

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