SIDNEY, Mont. (AP) — A state psychiatrist said Tuesday that a Colorado man is competent to stand trial in the murder of an eastern Montana teacher despite his low scores on mental-fitness tests.
The testimony in a Sidney, Mont., courtroom from psychiatrist Virginia Hill contrasted sharply with a defense portrayal of Michael Keith Spell, 24, as not fit for trial because he is mentally disabled and unable to understand the case against him.
Hill suggested Spell's low test scores belie his mental competency.
She described him mental disability as mild. Hill said he was observed playing video games, doing his own laundry and manipulating other patients during his two-month stay at Montana State Hospital in Warm Springs.
"Tests are not X-rays. Tests are not infallible," Hill said. "I believe actually observing a person's behavior is far more important and informative than trying to approximate what they know with tests."
Spell is charged with killing Sidney High School teacher Sherry Arnold in 2012. He could face the death penalty if convicted.
The case has unfolded as crime rates spiked in eastern Montana and neighboring parts of North Dakota, where an oil boom has transformed once-quiet agricultural communities. The killing of Arnold — a Sidney High School math teacher widely beloved in the community — stood out for its violent, random nature.
Co-defendant Lester Van Waters Jr., who was implicated by Spell as Arnold's killer, has pleaded guilty under a deal with prosecutors.
The case is being overseen by Montana District Judge Richard Simonton. He's so far given no indication of how he will reconcile the competing claims from the two sides.
Court documents, including law-enforcement affidavits and testimony from Spell's accomplice, say the defendants arrived in Montana after a drug-fueled drive from Parachute, Colo., and spotted Arnold along a Sidney street. Arnold died after Spell choked or otherwise asphyxiated her during an attempted abduction, according to prosecutors.
Previously, Spell was declared incompetent to proceed by courts in Colorado during a 2010 drug case and a 2007 case when he was a juvenile.
In testimony put up by the defense, Craig Beaver, a Boise, Idaho-based neuropsychologist, said Spell was prone to distort past events, which would effectively hobble any criminal defense he might mount. Beaver said he has documented evidence of Spell's mental shortcomings dating to when the defendant was just 5 years old, which Beaver said undercut any claim that the defendant was exaggerating his condition since his arrest just to avoid trial.
"Everyone that has evaluated Mr. Michael Spell, up until the Montana State Hospital, has found that he had intellectual limitations," Beaver said.
His attorneys have not denied Spell's involvement in the events leading up to Arnold's death, but they say there is no conclusive evidence he was the one who killed her.