A Montana judge will decide if a confession from an illiterate man charged in the killing of a high school teacher should be thrown out because of the defendant’s mental disabilities.
Defense attorneys have sought to suppress Michael Keith Spell’s alleged confession to his role in the murder of 43-year-old Sherry Arnold.
They claim that Spell, 24, could not understand what was happening to him during an interrogation following his arrest in South Dakota in January 2012, six days after Arnold disappeared from a Sidney street.
But Richland County prosecutors said in court papers filed Friday that there was no evidence of law enforcement misconduct during interviews with Spell by the FBI.
Law enforcement officers made sure Spell understood that he did not have to talk without a lawyer present, and gave him a second chance to decline to talk after Spell initially replied that he understood “a little bit” of what was being said to him, Deputy Richland County Attorney T.R. Halvorson wrote.
“Intellectual disability, while relevant, must be assessed in the totality of the circumstances,” Halvorson wrote. “Otherwise, we would be punishing the police simply because of the Defendant’s condition even though they have done nothing wrong.”
Arnold was a popular math teacher at Sidney High School, where her husband, Gary, also worked and her two children attended school. She grew up on a ranch outside Sidney, a city of 5,000 near the confluence of the Yellowstone and Missouri Rivers that’s been drastically changed by a recent oil boom in the Bakken region of North Dakota and Montana.
Spell and co-defendant Lester Van Waters, Jr., both of Colorado, have pleaded not guilty to charges of deliberate homicide and attempted kidnapping. Prosecutors intend to seek the death penalty, although a pending defense motion would make Spell ineligible for capital punishment because of his mental disabilities.
His attorneys argued that those same mental disabilities compel the court to throw out his alleged admissions to investigators, along with any evidence that was obtained as a result. They said a video recording of Spell’s interrogation reveals “his demeanor is that of an individual who will agree to say and do whatever he thinks an authority figure is seeking.”
They pointed to Spell’s failed attempts to lead authorities to Arnold’s body.
“It is painfully apparent both from Mr. Spell’s interview and his attempts to cooperate with the authorities and locate Mrs. Arnold’s body that his memory is extremely poor — he could not locate where Mrs. Arnold’s body was buried notwithstanding days of searching,” defense attorneys Al Avignone and Lisa Banick wrote.
The body was eventually found, more than two months after Arnold’s disappearance, when Waters led authorities to a shallow grave on farmland in western North Dakota. Authorities determined she died of asphyxiation, by choking or having her face held in a muddy pool until she was dead.
Waters’ trial is set to begin Nov. 4. Court officials said no motions were filed by his defense team before a May 31 deadline set by state District Judge Richard Simonton.
Spell’s attorneys want his trial, scheduled to begin Jan. 6, moved from Richland County to Bozeman, where they say it would be easier to find an impartial jury. They’ve also asked Simonton to use his judicial powers to abolish the death penalty as unconstitutional.
Prosecutors said in documents filed Monday that the issue is not up to the judiciary, because Montana voters and the Legislature over the past four decades rejected multiple challenges to the death penalty.