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Judge: Oil Patch Killing Suspect Fit For Trial

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Lester Vann Waters Jr. and Michael Keith Spell (credit: Williams County Sheriff's Department)

Lester Vann Waters Jr. and Michael Keith Spell (credit: Williams County Sheriff’s Department)

BILLINGS, Mont. (AP) – A mentally disabled Colorado man is fit to stand trial in the killing of a Montana teacher whose body was found in a shallow grave in North Dakota, under a Friday ruling from a state judge in a case that has highlighted the social changes brought by an oil boom sweeping the Northern Plains.

Judge Richard Simonton cited testimony from a state psychiatrist who evaluated 25-year-old Michael Keith Spell and said his mental disabilities were not so severe that he could not understand the case against him.

Spell is charged with the attempted kidnapping and murder of 43-year-old Sherry Arnold. The Sidney High School math teacher disappeared in January 2012 after going out for a morning jog. Her body was found more than two months later, buried in a shallow grave in a rural area of neighboring North Dakota.

Experts for the defense said during a March competency hearing that Spell is easily confused and prone to forget even basic facts within minutes. They said that leaves him unable to meaningfully participate in the complex murder case.

Prosecutors have said they intend to seek the death penalty against Spell.

Lester Van Waters Jr., who was implicated by Spell as the killer, pleaded guilty in a deal with prosecutors that calls for him to testify against Spell. Under that deal, Van Waters, 50, would escape a death sentence.

If Spell was ruled incompetent, the charges against him could be dismissed, and he would be committed to a state institution with the potential for eventual release.

The prosecution has cast him as a manipulative if mentally challenged conniver, eager to reduce his punishment by playing up his intellectual disability.

Still unresolved is whether those disabilities – which both sides in the case describe as mild – will spare him the death penalty. A 2002 Supreme Court ruling banned the execution of mentally disabled defendants as cruel and unusual punishment.

Simonton said he was deferring a decision on that issue. He addressed it indirectly in Friday’s ruling.

“The court, with three justices dissenting, held that intellectually disabled criminals are not subject to the death penalty,” Simonton wrote. “It did not say that intellectual disability equates to incompetency.”

The case has unfolded against a backdrop of spiking crime rates in eastern Montana and neighboring parts of North Dakota, where an oil boom has transformed once-quiet agricultural communities. The killing of Arnold – a Sidney High School math teacher beloved in the community – stood out for its violent, random nature.

Court documents, including law-enforcement affidavits and testimony from Waters, say the defendants arrived in Montana after a drug-fueled drive from Parachute, Colorado, and spotted Arnold jogging along a Sidney street. Arnold died after Spell choked or otherwise asphyxiated her during an attempted abduction, according to prosecutors.

- By MATTHEW BROWN, Associated Press

(© Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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