- Associated Press - Wednesday, September 24, 2014

BILLINGS, Mont. (AP) - Attorneys for the Montana Department of Justice asked the state Supreme Court on Wednesday to reject a Colorado man’s petition to be declared unfit to stand trial in the oil-patch murder of a high school math teacher.

Mental-health experts for both the prosecution and defense have agreed that defendant Michael Keith Spell, 25, is mentally disabled - a finding that spared him a potential death sentence in the January 2012 death of Sherry Arnold, 43.

But the prosecution has dug in against Spell’s attempts to be declared incompetent after he petitioned the Supreme Court to intervene in the case.

Assistant Attorney General Tammy Plubell wrote in a Wednesday response to Spell’s petition that his disability is only one factor to consider when deciding if he is unfit for trial.

She said Spell showed his competency during a two-month evaluation last winter at the state mental hospital in Warm Springs. Plubell cited his interactions with other patients and hospital staff and said Spell showed a higher degree of functioning than his attorneys have asserted.

“An intellectual disability does not necessarily render a person unfit to stand trial,” she said. “It is critical to also evaluate a defendant’s functional ability, or how a person handles life’s common demands.”

A Nov. 17 trial is scheduled. Spell could spend life in prison if convicted in Arnold’s murder.

Defense attorney Al Avignone said Wednesday that he had not yet seen the state’s arguments. But he said that observations of Spell performing daily tasks while at Warm Springs wouldn’t reveal the extent of his mental shortcomings.

“Basically, they put their thumb up, looked at Mr. Spell and said, ‘Yep, he’s fit,’ ” Avignone said. “Assisting counsel in the defense of a complex deliberate homicide case is a whole other matter and requires much more complex conceptual thinking.”

In May, state District Judge Richard Simonton sided with the conclusions of Dr. Virginia Hill, a psychiatrist from the state mental hospital in Warm Springs who evaluated Spell. She said Spell had matured mentally since being ruled mentally incompetent in a previous legal proceeding in Colorado and he had benefited from being off drugs since his arrest in Arnold’s death.

Arnold disappeared while on a morning jog in January 2012. Her body was found more than two months later in a shallow grave in nearby North Dakota at the center of the Bakken oil boom.

Co-defendant Lester Van Waters Jr. pleaded guilty in a deal with prosecutors that calls for him to testify against Spell.

A hearing is scheduled next week in Sidney on an attempt by Spell’s attorneys to have his alleged confessions to law enforcement suppressed during trial. Prosecutors in Richland County are opposed.

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