SIDNEY — Defense experts testified Monday that a Colorado man is unfit for trial in the murder of a Montana teacher because he is prone to distort the past and displays the intelligence of an 11-year-old, leaving him unable to understand the case against him.
But testimony also revealed that doctors at Montana State Hospital suspected 24-year-old Michael Keith Spell was "pretending" when he could not answer some questions during a recent mental fitness evaluation.
Judge Richard Simonton will have to reconcile the competing claims to determine if Spell is incompetent because of mental disability, as his lawyers contend.
Spell is charged with the attempted kidnapping and murder of 43-year-old Sherry Arnold, who disappeared in January, 2012 after going out for a morning jog in her hometown of Sidney. Her body was found more than two months later, buried in a shallow grave in a rural area of neighboring North Dakota.
A co-defendant has pleaded guilty and Spell could face the death sentence if convicted. But if Simonton agrees with the defense claims, Spell could avoid trial and be sent to a state institution, where he could become eligible for eventual release.
The case has highlighted the steep social costs of a Northern Plains oil boom that drew the defendants to the region looking for work. Crime rates spiked in eastern Montana and neighboring parts of North Dakota over the past several years, and the killing of Arnold - a Sidney High School math teacher widely beloved in the community - stood out for its violent, random nature.
Testifying for the defense Monday, psychologist Greg Olley, a clinical professor at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine, said he interviewed Spell twice in recent months and found that he could answer rote questions but nothing more substantive. Olley said Spell meets the criteria for intellectual disability, a condition formerly known by the now-obsolete term "mentally retarded."
"He's not smart," Olley said. "I observed him being really confused most of the time about the questions he was asked, and not being able to provide adequate answers to show he could understand the conversation."
As questioning continued, defense attorney Al Avignone revealed that doctors for the state suspected Spell of feigning ignorance to some questions. Olley replied that Spell had "a terrible memory" that leaves him unable to retain much information.
Prosecutors, led by Richland County Attorney Mike Weber, sought to exclude Olley's testimony on Spell's competence because the psychologist did not submit a written report on the matter. Simonton did not immediately act on the request.
A second defense expert, Boise, Idaho-based neuropsychologist Craig Beaver, later testified that Spell is prone to distort past events, which would effectively hobble any criminal defense he might mount.
Beaver added that he was able to document evidence of Spell's mental shortcomings dating to when the defendant was just five years old, which Beaver said undercut any claim that he was exaggerating his condition just to avoid trial.
Prosecutors will get the chance to refute the defense arguments on Tuesday, when the doctors who evaluated Spell at the state hospital in Warm Springs are expected to take the stand.
Even if the disability claim is accepted by the court, Spell still could be found competent, said Margaret Nygren, executive director of the American Association on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities.
"Intellectual disability is a continuum," Nygren said. "It's certainly possible someone could have intellectual disability at the higher end and participate in their defense."
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 the documents.
Co-defendant Lester Van Waters, Jr. reached a plea deal last summer that would allow him to avoid a death sentence in exchange for testimony against Spell if the case goes to trial.
Spell implicated Van Waters as the killer in an FBI interview following his arrest. Van Waters, 50, has a lengthy criminal record and served several prison stints in his native Florida before meeting up with Spell in Colorado.
His attorneys have not denied Spell's involvement in the events leading up to Arnold's death, but say there is no "conclusive evidence" he was the one who killed her.
Defense attorney Al Avignone said he expects as many as four mental disability experts to testify at the hearing, including staff from the state hospital and two experts for the defense. Spell is not expected to appear at the hearing.
Designations of mentally disabled depend on three factors - intellectual capacity, commonly measured by IQ score; the ability to perform basic life functions; and evidence that the disability was present before the age of 18.
Spell was declared incompetent to proceed twice in Colorado - in a 2010 drug case and a 2007 case when he was a juvenile.
Determining a defendant's competency becomes much harder when the disability is not considered severe, according to experts. That's the case with Spell, who worked various jobs and fathered a child with his girlfriend before his arrest, but according to his attorneys has consistently scored below 75 on IQ tests.