A state judge on Monday ordered a Colorado man charged with killing an Eastern Montana teacher to be committed to a state mental institution for examination.
The move came at the request of defense attorneys who contend their client is mentally disabled and unable to understand the case against him.
District Judge Richard Simonton’s order calls for 24-year-old Michael Keith Spell to be transferred to Montana State Hospital at Warm Springs, where he will undergo an examination by a mental-health professional for up to 30 days. That stay could be extended if officials determine more time is needed.
The mental evaluation could determine if Spell is fit for trial in the January 2012 killing of Sherry Arnold in Sidney. The Parachute, Colo., man is charged with felony murder and attempted kidnapping, and could face the death penalty if convicted.
Spell’s trial is scheduled to begin Jan. 6. Simonton wrote that he has no intention of rescheduling the proceedings absent “extraordinary circumstances.”
Spell’s co-defendant, Lester Van Waters Jr., pleaded guilty in August under a deal with prosecutors that must be approved by the court. He would be spared the death penalty and receive 100 years in prison in exchange for testifying against Spell.
Arnold, a 43-year-old Sidney High School math teacher, disappeared during a morning run in January 2012.
Her body was found more than two months later when Waters led FBI agents to where she’d been buried in a shallow grave outside the Bakken oil boom town of Williston, N.D.
In a separate court filing, prosecutors on Monday rejected claims by Spell’s attorneys that the kidnapping and murder charges should be dropped. The defense claims testimony by Van Waters during his change of plea hearing revealed the pair did not intend to kidnap or kill Arnold.
Deputy Richland County Attorney T.R. Halvorson rejected the defense claim as “ambiguous self-serving hearsay.” He also dismissed the notion that County Attorney Mike Weber was deceiving the court and seeking the conviction of an innocent defendant.
“The defense knows that the State is in possession of evidence that Spell choked Sherry Arnold or held her face in mud or water until she was dead,” Halvorson wrote.