A Montana murder case has taken a twist after defense experts testified that a man accused of killing a teacher has the intelligence of an 11-year-old and doesn’t understand the case against him.
MIchael Keith Spell is accused of kidnapping and murdering 43-year-old Sherry Arnold, who disappeared while she was out for a morning jog. Authorities found her body more than two months later.
On Monday, defense experts testified that the Colorado man is unfit to stand trial because he is prone to lying about the past.
“He’s not smart,” claimed psychologist Greg Olley, a clinical professor at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine. “I observed him being really confused most of the time about the questions he was asked, and not being able to provide adequate answers to show he could understand the conversation.”
The prosecution meanwhile claimed that the 24-year-old murder suspect has only been pretending to be unable to answer questions during a mental fitness test.
Judge Richard Simonton will decide whether the Montana murder case will resume. If the trial moves forward, Spell could face the death penalty, but if the judge rules for the defense he would instead be placed in a state institution and eventually be eligible to be released.
Michael Keith Spell had already been declared incompetent to proceed in two trials in Colorado, including a 2010 drug case and a 2007 case when he was a juvenile.
But the Montana murder case is tricky, said Margaret Nygren, executive director of the American Association on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities.
“Intellectual disability is a continuum,” Nygren said. “It’s certainly possible someone could have intellectual disability at the higher end and participate in their defense.”
The Montana murder case underscores a growing problem in the region, as people flocking to the Northern Plains oil boom for work have led to a spike in crime rates.