BILLINGS — Defense attorneys for one of two men charged in the killing of a Montana high school teacher said Tuesday that their client should be ruled ineligible for the death penalty because he is mentally disabled.
Twenty-four-year-old Michael Keith Spell faces charges including deliberate homicide in the January 2012 kidnapping and murder of Sherry Arnold, a popular teacher in the small Bakken oil patch town of Sidney.
Spell and Lester Van Waters Jr., both of Colorado have pleaded not guilty to charges they grabbed Arnold from a street while she was on her morning jog, killed her and buried her body in a North Dakota field.
Prosecutors have said they intend to seek the death penalty against both men.
But defense attorney Al Avignone said he has asked the court to rule his client ineligible for execution under a 2002 U.S. Supreme Court ruling. In that case, involving a Virginia man convicted of murder, justices reversed the defendant's death sentence on the grounds that it violated the Constitution's prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment.
Spell told a judge in an earlier court appearance that he cannot read, and his father has said he has less education than a kindergartner. He had travelled with Waters to the oil fields of Montana and North Dakota looking for work.
Avignone declined to discuss Spell's disabilities in more detail, although he said his client has been examined by a mental health professional and found to meet the court's definition of mentally disabled. That includes having an IQ of 75 or lower and being incapable of normal mental functions.
"We're talking about everyday skills, living skills, ability to drive a car, make change, hold a job and be able to learn skills," Avignone said.
Prosecutors have until Aug. 21 to respond to the motion from Avignone and fellow defense attorney Lisa Banick, which was filed under seal.
Richland County Attorney Mike Weber, who is prosecuting the case, did not immediately respond to telephone messages seeking comment.
Spell's trial is set for Jan. 6 before state District Judge Richard Simonton.
The defense also is seeking to have Spell's 2014 trial moved to Bozeman, saying the venue change is necessary to get a fair hearing. Widespread "inflammatory" news coverage of Arnold's killing, combined with her popularity in the community, left potential jurors biased, Avignone said.
The attorneys said they conducted a survey that showed more than three-quarters of potential jurors in the 7th Judicial District believe Spell is guilty. That includes Sidney and several surrounding counties.
"There is no indication that the community passions about this case and Mr. Spell have or will diminish before the trial date in this matter," Avignone and Banick wrote.
They cited numerous comments posted with newspaper articles about the case in which readers called for "Old West Justice" and for the suspects to "hang from the nearest tree." They asked for the trial to be moved to Gallatin County because the case received less publicity in the Bozeman area. Gallatin officials already had agreed to reserve a courtroom for the trial, they said.
In a separate motion, Spell's attorneys want to exclude statements about his involvement that were cited in the criminal complaint filed against him and Waters. Because of Spell's mental disabilities, the attorneys said, Spell was unable to understand that he was waiving his Constitutional rights when he told investigators about his role in Arnold's slaying.
Waters' trial is set to begin Nov. 4. Court officials said Tuesday they have not received a change of venue request in his case.