Sherry Arnold: Michael Spell competent – no death penalty because Intellectually disabled
22 June, 2012
Judge Richard Simonton, May 13,ruled that Michael Spell, 25, is competent to stand trial.
During a two-day competency hearing in March, Spell’s attorneys had argued that Spell suffers from an intellectual disability and is not competent enough for legal proceedings.
Prosecutors will not ask for the death penalty against defendant Michael Spell for the murder of Sidney teacher Sherry Arnold. The prosecutors filed a “Withdraw of Notice of Intent to Seek Death Penalty” on May 17. In the filing, Richland County Attorney Mike Weber cited the 2002 United States Supreme Court case Atkins v. Virginia. “Intellectually disabled criminals are not subject to the death penalty,” Weber stated. Weber also referred to the competency hearing held in March. During the hearing, three expert witnesses gave testimony. “All three experts, including Dr. Hill whom the state called as a witness at the hearing, opined that the defendant herein is intellectually disabled,” Weber wrote. A scheduling conference took place over the telephone on May 17. According to Richland County Clerk of Court Janice Klempel, a trial date has been scheduled to begin on December 17. The trial is expected to last up to three weeks. Waters has entered a plea deal, and could spend up to 80 years in prison. Prosecutors plan to sentence Waters after the outcome of Spell’s case. Waters has agreed to testify against Spell during his trial.
Michael Spell’s mental capacity will be the subject of a competency hearing March 24 before District Judge Richard Simonton. Spell’s defense team argues in briefs filed March 20 that the 24-year old’s intellectual disability, should remove the death penalty in his case.
Attorneys Al Avignone and Lisa Banick say Spell reads and comprehends at the level of a first grader. Their legal brief describes Spell’s difficulty remembering dates, times and geographical locations.
Thursday’s court filing states that Spell cannot write much beyond printing his name, and he is unable to read and understand the charges against him. Spell’s attorneys also point to a court ordered mental evaluation, that diagnosed their client as disabled.
Spell’s attorneys also point to a Colorado juvenile case against their client in 2007, where charges against Spell were dismissed at the prosecutor’s request due to Spell’s incompetency.
State prosecutors have yet to file their briefs with the court, so it’s unclear what arguments will be made to convince the judge that the death penalty should remain a possible outcome of Spell’s case.
 Spell’s father, Harry, told The Associated Press that his son had travelled with Waters to the oil fields of Montana and North Dakota after Waters guaranteed work paying up to $2,000 a week. Harry Spell said his son was anxious to prove himself to his parents and girlfriend, with whom he has a 1-year-old son.
Prosecutors in northeast Montana on Friday filed an affidavit in state court containing the chilling confession of Michael Keith Spell, 22, one of the men charged with kidnapping Sherry Arnold, 43, on Jan. 7.
Spell told police that he and Lester Waters, 47, both of Colorado, were smoking crack cocaine during a trip to Montana to find work when Waters said he was seized by the urge to kidnap and kill a woman, the Sidney Herald newspaper reported.
Waters said the drug “brought the devil out in him,” according to Spell’s confession.
As the two drove through Sidney, Mont., they spotted Arnold running along a road and hatched a plan to abduct her.
The two parked their green Ford Explorer up ahead of Arnold, and when she came past them, Spell jumped her and pulled her into the truck, the document said.
Arnold lost a sneaker in the struggle, which was later found on the route by police.
Once they had Arnold in the vehicle, Waters climbed into the back seat and “choked her out,” Spell confessed.
The math teacher lay “dead inside the vehicle under a blanket,” while the pair drove to North Dakota, where they tossed her clothing in a dumpster before eventually burying her body in a 3-foot grave on an abandoned farm outside of Williston, some 45 miles away.
Spell said he was later wracked with guilt after spotting missing posters with Arnold’s face on them and called his girlfriend in Colorado to confess.
Waters was arrested in Williston on Jan. 12 and Spell was picked up in Rapid City, S.D., the next day.
[February 16]North Dakota District Judge David Nelson made the final verdict to extradite both suspects. Lester Waters Jr. and Michael Spell are set to appear in District Court on February 28th. They are being held in the Richland County Jail on $2.5 million bond.
Once the Richland County Attorney files the proceedings in District Court, more information will be released regarding what led authorities to arrest Waters and Spell.