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Man won’t face death penalty for murder of Montana teacher

SIDNEY, Mont. — Prosecutors said Tuesday they will not pursue the death penalty against a Colorado man suspected of killing a teacher in Montana.

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Richland County Attorney Mike Weber has given up on capital punishment for 25-year-old Michael Keith Spell, who is accused of kidnapping and murdering Sidney High School teacher Sherry Arnold, 43.

Arnold disappeared during a morning jog in January 2012. Spell allegedly choked Arnold and drowned her in a puddle, according to court documents. Her body was found three months later buried in a shallow grave near Williston.

“We are very pleased with this development,” defense attorney Al Avignone said. “This accomplishes the major goal that we have been working to achieve over the two years since we have gotten involved in this case.”

The move comes after a psychiatrist determined Spell is mentally disabled. Spell’s defense team failed to have the case dismissed by saying he was incompetent to stand trial. He now faces life in prison.

The defense team will continue to press the Montana Supreme Court to have Spell deemed mentally unfit for trial. The defense also has filed a motion to suppress Spell’s statements he gave to FBI agents when arrested.

“He’s intellectually disabled,” Avignone said. “The FBI should have taken special measures to make sure he understood his rights and what he was doing. They didn’t do that. They treated him just like they would someone of normal intelligence.”

Spell has consistently scored below 75 on IQ tests, which makes him mentally challenged legally, Avignone said previously. He added that Spell can’t read, yet the FBI gave Spell a waiver of a right to an attorney to sign.

“Michael Spell is not capable of understanding constitutional rights,” Avignone said.

The trial has been set for Nov. 17 in Glendive, Mont., according to the Richland County Clerk of Court Office. The defense asked for the change of venue because it believes Spell would not get a fair trial in the hometown of Arnold. A judge has given the defense and prosecution three weeks to make their cases.

“I don’t think that is long enough,” Avignone said.

Spell’s co-defendant, Lester Van Waters Jr., pleaded guilty to deliberate homicide to avoid the death penalty. Waters was sentenced in August to 100 years in prison with 20 years suspended and has agreed to testify against Spell.

Both are from Parachute, Colo.

Weber could not be immediately reached for comment.

April Baumgarten
April Baumgarten joined the Grand Forks Herald May 19, 2015, as the news editor. She works with a team of talented journalists and editors, who strive to give the Grand Forks area the quality news readers deserve to know. Baumgarten grew up on a ranch 10 miles southeast of Belfield, where her family continues to raise registered Hereford cattle. She double majored in communications and history/political science at Jamestown (N.D.) College, now known as University of Jamestown. During her time at the college,  she worked as a reporter and editor-in-chief for the university's newspaper, The Collegian. Baumgarten previously worked for The Dickinson Press as the Dickinson city government and energy reporter in 2011 before becoming the editor of the Hazen Star and Center Republican. She then returned to The Press as a news editor, where she helped lead an award-winning newsroom in recording the historical oil boom.