BILLINGS, Mont. (AP) - Prosecutors ended their pursuit of the death penalty for a Colorado man who experts said was mentally disabled after he was charged in the killing of a teacher in Montana’s oil patch, according to court documents filed Tuesday.
Richland County Attorney Mike Weber cited testimony from mental health experts who said during a March competency hearing that 25-year-old defendant Michael Keith Spell is mentally disabled.
Psychiatrists say Spell has a low IQ, can barely read and doesn’t understand some basic life tasks. A three-week trial is set for Nov. 17 in Glendive, after being delayed for months while Spell underwent a mental evaluation.
A 2002 U.S. Supreme Court ruling banned executions of mentally disabled people as cruel and unusual punishment.
Defense attorney Al Avignone said he spoke with Spell soon after Tuesday’s notice was filed.
“He’s a man of few words, but it’s fair to say he’s relieved,” Avignone said. “This accomplishes the primary goal the defense team has been working to achieve over the past two years.”
Spell is charged with attempted kidnapping and deliberate homicide in the killing of 43-year-old Sherry Arnold, who disappeared while jogging along a Sidney street. Authorities say Spell choked or otherwise asphyxiated Arnold during an attempted abduction.
He could now face a maximum possible sentence of life in prison if convicted.
The move by the prosecution came after a state judge on Friday rejected attempts by Spell’s attorneys to have him declared incompetent. That would have let Spell avoid trial and made him eligible for eventual release.
An accomplice, Lester Van Waters, Jr., pleaded guilty in August to deliberate homicide by accountability in a deal with prosecutors. Under the agreement, he would be spared the death penalty and receive 100 years in prison in exchange for testifying against Spell.
Spell’s attorneys have not disputed that he was involved in the events leading to Arnold’s death. Yet they maintain there is no conclusive evidence he was the one who killed her. Spell implicated Waters as the killer in interviews with law enforcement soon after his arrest.
Members of Arnold’s family said they wanted the case to go to trial to bring closure, but a death sentence for Spell was never their goal.
The Sidney High School math teacher and mother of two was killed just blocks from her house after going out for a morning jog on Jan. 7, 2012. Her body was found more than two months later, buried in a shallow grave in a rural area of neighboring North Dakota.
Avignone said he plans to file a petition with the Montana Supreme Court seeking to overturn State District Judge Richard Simonton’s ruling that Spell is fit for trial.
The defense argues that his mental disabilities make him unable to meaningfully participate in the complex case.
In Friday’s ruling, Simonton agreed with a psychiatrist from the state hospital in Warm Springs, who determined after a two-month evaluation that Spell could function at a high enough intellectual level to assist in his defense. Testimony from both sides indicated Spell’s mental disability was mild.
Spell was previously declared incompetent by a Colorado judge in a drug case.
Still pending in the Montana case is a ruling from Simonton on a defense request to suppress statements Spell made to law enforcement in the days following his arrest.
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