Prosecutors won’t seek death penalty in Montana teacher killing

BILLINGS, Mont. (AP) – Prosecutors have dropped their pursuit of the death penalty for a Colorado man suspected of killing a teacher in eastern Montana’s oil patch, according to court documents filed Tuesday.

Richland County Attorney Mike Weber cited testimony from psychiatrists 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 basic life tasks

A 2002 U.S. Supreme Court ruling banned executions of the mentally disabled as cruel and unusual punishment.

Spell is charged with killing 43-year-old Sherry Arnold, who disappeared while jogging along a Sidney street in 2012.

He now faces a maximum of life in prison if convicted on charges of attempted kidnapping and deliberate homicide.

Tuesday’s move comes after a state judge on Friday rejected attempts by Spell’s attorneys to have him declared incompetent. That would have let him avoid trial.

An accomplice, Lester Van Waters, Jr., pleaded guilty in a deal with prosecutors that would allow him to avoid a death sentence in exchange for testifying against Spell.

Spell’s attorneys have not disputed he was involved in the events leading up to Arnold’s death. Yet, they maintain that there is no conclusive evidence he was the one that killed her. Spell implicated Waters in interviews with law enforcement soon after his arrest.

Members of Arnold’s family have said they want the case to go to trial to bring closure, but that 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. Her body was found more than two months later, buried in a shallow grave in a rural area of neighboring North Dakota.

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.”

Avignone said he plans to file a petition with the Montana Supreme Court in coming weeks seeking to overturn State District Judge Richard Simonton ruling that Spell is fit for trial.

The defense has argued that his mental disabilities make him unable to participate meaningfully in the complex murder case. Spell was previously declared incompetent by a Colorado judge in a drug case.