- Associated Press - Friday, April 7, 2017

HELENA, Mont. (AP) - A Colorado man’s reported attempts to manipulate the staff at the state psychiatric hospital prove he was mentally competent to plead guilty to killing an eastern Montana teacher, prosecutors said.

The state filed its response this week to Michael Spell’s appeal of his conviction and 100-year prison sentence in the January 2012 death of Sherry Arnold of Sidney. The appeal argues Spell is mentally disabled and should be placed in the Montana State Hospital rather than prison.

Spell pleaded guilty in October 2014, saying that while under the influence of cocaine he grabbed Arnold, 43, while she was jogging and held her face in muddy water until she died. Her body was found in a shallow grave in North Dakota two months later.

Before Spell reached the plea agreement, District Judge Richard Simonton held a hearing and found Spell competent to stand trial.

Psychiatrist Virginia Hill testified that Spell was able to control his behavior at the state hospital to earn privileges, such as playing video games, and that his psychiatric complaints seemed to increase near the end of the two-month competency evaluation after he learned about the type of symptoms that can lead to a finding of guilty but mentally ill. However, he did not appear to experience symptoms or behavior changes that matched the complaints, Hill said.

While talking with staff, Spell also minimized his cognitive functioning, his understanding of the legal process and his ability to remember what happened when Arnold was killed, the state evaluation found.

Simonton was right to give more credibility to the state hospital evaluation, the state argued Wednesday, because staff were able to observe his behavior all day for 60 days while defense experts - who argued he wasn’t competent - had evaluated him for just a few hours.

Spell had previously avoided criminal punishment by being found incompetent, and there was some evidence that he had been taught to do poorly in school and to exaggerate his problems so his family could continue to receive disability payments, Simonton noted in his competency order.

The Supreme Court will rule on the appeal later.

Spell’s co-defendant, Lester Waters, is serving an 80-year prison sentence for accountability to deliberate homicide.

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