Defendant in Sidney schoolteacher's murder diagnosed with mental disability

2014-03-20T15:36:00Z 2014-10-19T08:08:28Z Defendant in Sidney schoolteacher's murder diagnosed with mental disabilityThe Associated Press The Associated Press
March 20, 2014 3:36 pm  • 

BILLINGS – A Colorado man charged in the murder of an eastern Montana teacher was diagnosed with mental disability following a recent evaluation at Montana State Hospital, according to court documents filed Thursday by defense attorneys.

Attorneys for 24-year-old Michael Keith Spell have argued that their client’s disability, including a limited ability to read or write, makes him unfit to be tried in the January 2012 killing of 43-year-old Sherry Arnold of Sidney. Arnold was taken while jogging near her home. Her body was found buried in North Dakota.

Spell is charged with deliberate homicide and attempted kidnapping. He could face the death penalty if convicted.

In Thursday’s court filing, defense attorneys Al Avignone and Lisa Banick said a Jan. 29 report from two doctors at the state hospital states that Spell was diagnosed as disabled after a two-month, court-ordered evaluation.

The filing did not detail whether the state’s doctors found him incompetent.

But Spell’s attorneys wrote that the doctors’ opinions regarding Spell’s fitness to proceed were “unfounded and not reliable” – suggesting they run counter to defense arguments that he should avoid trial.

That’s sure to be a point of contention during an upcoming competency hearing in Sidney. Richland County Attorney Mike Weber, who is prosecuting the case, did not immediately return telephone messages seeking comment.

The defense also said a juvenile case against their client was dismissed in Colorado in 2007 at the request of the prosecutor due to Spell’s incompetency.

The Associated Press has previously reported another incompetency finding for Spell in a 2010 Colorado drug case.

Avignone and Banick declined to give further details on the hospital report or the juvenile case.

At least two doctors, psychiatrist Virginia Hill and psychologist Timothy Casey, examined Spell at the state hospital in Warm Springs, which is overseen by the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services. Agency spokesman Jon Ebelt said he could not discuss Spell’s case because of patient confidentiality rules.

A co-defendant, Lester Van Waters, Jr., pleaded guilty last year in a deal that would allow him to avoid the death penalty in exchange for testimony against Spell.

Copyright 2015 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

(5) Comments

  1. Roger
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    Roger - March 21, 2014 8:24 am
    If his "mental disability" presented a danger to society, he should have been locked up long ago. Now he should stand trial for his act of murder.
  2. walter12
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    walter12 - March 21, 2014 7:24 am
    Spare us this bleeding heart act, he was not disabled when he murdered the woman was he?
    A hundred years ago, these two would have been hanged a year ago by now.
  3. Greg Strandberg
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    Greg Strandberg - March 20, 2014 8:25 pm
    So if I'm illiterate I can get away with murder? Please!
  4. Miss Perfect
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    Miss Perfect - March 20, 2014 6:48 pm
    How would good reading skills have prevented this man from kidnapping and murdering a woman? Fire up the cyanide and acid.......this guy is ready for the oven.

    On the other hand......it seems a bit unfair to bribe a co-defendant to get him to rat...........what reasonable person would NOT implicate their partner if it kept them from the gallows? This is just wrong.........either make the case in court with evidence or cut them free.
  5. msonelson
    Report Abuse
    msonelson - March 20, 2014 4:20 pm
    So what! He and his pal kidnapped and brutally murdered an innocent woman. You can't tell me he is too stupid to know that when you strangle and drown someone they die. He is exactly why we need the death penalty!
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