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Defense in Sherry Arnold case seeks police files


August 7, 2013

HELENA (AP) — One of the two men accused of kidnapping and killing a Sidney High School teacher wants state prosecutors to turn over information from the personnel files of the law-enforcement officers who investigated the case.

In addition, Michael Keith Spell's attorneys want District Judge Richard Simonton to order prosecutors to hand over the criminal histories of co-defendant Lester Van Waters Jr. and a jailhouse informant, any deals prosecutors made with witnesses and any witness testimony given to the grand jury.

Deputy Richland County Attorney T.R. Halvorson responded to defense attorney Al Avignone's April 30 request on Monday, focusing on the officers' personnel files. Halvorson asked Simonton to deny the request because Avignone has not shown those files are material to the case and the officers are entitled to a right to privacy under the Montana Constitution.

Spell and Waters, both from Colorado, have pleaded not guilty to charges of deliberate homicide and attempted kidnapping in the January 2012 slaying of Sherry Arnold, a popular math teacher at Sidney High School.

Prosecutors say the men grabbed Arnold from a street where she was jogging, killed her and buried her body in a North Dakota field. Prosecutors intend to seek the death penalty, though Spell's attorney argues the defendant should be ruled ineligible for capital punishment and his confession thrown out because he is mentally disabled.

Spell has a right to the information on the law-enforcement officers and investigators involved in the case because it might cast doubt on officers' credibility, Avignone said in his court filing.

The information is necessary for cross-examining the officers and for preparing Spell's case, he said.

"Cross-examination is the hallmark of our system of justice because it produces truth," Avignone wrote. "One goal of cross-examination is to impeach the credibility of opposing witnesses, and the examiner is permitted to delve into the witness' story to test (his) perceptions and memory."

Unless Spell can show the relevance or a substantial need for those files, the request for them should be denied, Halvorson countered.

District Judge Richard Simonton has not ruled on the request.

Avignone also is requesting the criminal histories of co-defendant Waters and of a jailhouse informant. That history may provide impeachment evidence because their conduct in certain crimes may illustrate the witnesses' honesty, the attorney said.

The state provided a criminal history for Waters dated Jan. 12, 2012, and Spell's lawyers don't have access to any information that may have been generated after that date. The state has provided no criminal history for the informant.

Spell's attorney also wants prosecutors to turn over any deals or benefits they made or promised to any witnesses and all statements witnesses made to the grand jury so they can be compared with other statements they made.


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