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Crime & Courts

Defendant in oil patch murder seeks to avoid trial due to mental disability

  • Missing Montana Teacher-Trial.JPEG

    Defense attorney Al Avignone, left, questions psychologist Greg Olley during testimony, Monday, March 24, 2014 in Sidney, Mont. on whether a Colorado man should stand trial in the 2012 killing of a Montana teacher. Olley testified that 24-year-old defendant Michael Keith Spell has an intelligence level comparable to an 11-year-old and is not fit for trial. (AP Photo/Matthew Brown) (The Associated Press)

  • 3efbc48090584c0b4f0f6a7067002234.jpg

    FILE - In this Nov. 5, 2013 file photo, Sidney High School students fold the American flag at the end of a school day in Sidney, Mont. Almost two years after the murder of a long-time math teacher at the school, 43-year-old Sherry Arnold, Michael Keith Spell's bid to avoid trial and a potential death sentence in the killing of Arnold goes before a state judge Monday, March 24, 2014, to decide if the defendant is mentally disabled. His attorneys say Keith Spell, 24, has the mental capacities of a first-grader and is unfit for trial. If Judge Richard Simonton agrees, Spell could be sent to a state institution indefinitely. He’s charged with murdering Sherry Arnold in Jan. 2012 as she was jogging near her home in Sidney, Mont., then burying her body in North Dakota. An accomplice, Lester Van Waters, Jr., pleaded guilty under a plea deal that calls for him to testify against Spell. (AP Photo/Matthew Brown) (The Associated Press)

Defense experts say a Colorado man seeking to avoid trial in the murder of a Montana teacher has a distorted recollection of past events and the mental capacity of an 11-year-old.

Two psychologists appearing for the defense told a Sidney, Mont., courtroom Monday that 24-year-old Michael Keith Spell is unfit for trial in the January 2012 killing of local teacher Sherry Arnold.

However, testimony also revealed that doctors at Montana State Hospital suspected Spell was faking it when he could not answer some questions during an evaluation.

Prosecutors are expected to call the state doctors to the stand Tuesday when Spell's competency hearing continues.

A co-defendant has pleaded guilty.

The case has highlighted the social costs of a Northern Plains oil boom that drew the defendants to the region looking for work.

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