HELENA -- Two men suspected of kidnapping a Sidney schoolteacher and burying her body in a shallow grave in North Dakota have asked that a new judge to be assigned to their case.
Attorneys for Lester Waters and Michael Spell filed documents on Feb. 28 and Feb. 29 requesting a substitute for District Judge Katherine Irigoin. The documents did not give a reason for the request, but simply cited the Montana law that allows them to make the request within 10 days of a judge taking a case.
Public defenders Cynthia Thornton and Randi Hood, the representatives of Waters and Spell, did not return calls Monday.
Richland County attorney Mike Weber said that regardless of whether the request is granted, the assignment of a new judge from outside of Sidney would not amount to a change of venue.
"Venue is still Richland County," Weber said.
A separate request must be made to move the trial, and neither Waters nor Spell has done so yet.
State law says that when a district judge is substituted or disqualified from a case, other judges from the same district must be called in to preside before a judge from a different district can be considered.
Richard Simonton of Glendive is the other judge in Montana's 7th Judicial District, which covers Dawson, McCone, Prairie, Richland and Wibaux Counties. Simonton, 67, has held that position since 1998.
Irigoin, 51, was elected to the bench in 2002 after working for 18 years as an attorney from Lambert.
Spell and Waters have pleaded not guilty to aggravated kidnapping in the disappearance of 43-year-old Sherry Arnold, who was abducted near her home while she was jogging on Jan. 7.
She is presumed dead but her body has not been found. Prosecutors have said that Spell told investigators that he pulled Arnold into a car and Waters choked her to death before they buried her on a farmstead near Williston, N.D.
Both men pleaded not guilty to the aggravated kidnapping charge in their arraignment before Irigoin last Tuesday. If convicted, the men could face the death penalty.
Irigoin set separate trial dates for the two men beginning in July.