A Montana psychiatrist has cleared Michael Keith Spell, originally from Colorado, to stand trial despite scoring low on mental competency tests. The contrasting testimony was provided by psychiatrist Virginia Hill which is a direct contrast to the characterization that the defense created for the defendant as being mentally disabled and unable to comprehend the case against him.
Hill believes that the low test scores by Spell fail to represent clearly the competency of the murder suspect describing him as playing video games, doing his own laundry and manipulating and interacting with other patients during his two month stay at Montana State Hospital in Warm Springs.
“Tests are not X-rays. Tests are not infallible,” Hill said. “I believe actually observing a person’s behavior is far more important and informative than trying to approximate what they know with tests.”
Spell has been charged with killing high school teacher Sherry Arnold in 2012. If convicted, Spell could be sentenced to death by lethal injection.
Calls to end Montana’s death penalty law have come into the spotlight recently with the Great Falls Tribune performing an about face on the issue. At one time, the paper was in favor of keeping the death penalty law, however now their opinion seems to have changed. The editorial reads, “There is no way to take back an execution. That reason alone provides good cause to eliminate the death penalty in Montana.” The editorial also considers the burden that the process puts on the victim’s families, and the infamous stardom it brings to the convicted: “[D]uring the long periods before their executions, these men received regular publicity and notoriety for their crimes. If they had been simply locked up for life without possibility of parole, people could have forgotten about them.” The editorial ends on this note, “Our bottom line is that it’s risky to execute people when they might not be guilty. In addition, the cost and trauma of court cases that drag on for years is not worth the satisfaction some people receive from the finality of executions. We simply cannot afford to spend millions of dollars each on future death penalty cases.”
This Montana murder case is the face of a crime spike that the region of eastern Montana and connecting parts of North Dakota are currently experiencing presumably due to the recent oil boom. This particular murder stands out due to the voilent and random nature.
Co-defendant Lester Van Waters Jr. pleaded guilty to the murder of Ms. Arnold in a plea deal reached with the state of Montana.
Previously Michael Spell has been declared incompetent to stand trial by the court system in his home state of Colorado in 2010 and as a minor in 2007.
Spell’s attorneys have not denied his involvement in the murder, but do state that there is no conclusive evidence that Spell is the one that committed the murder. It will be interesting to watch how this most recent Montana murder case unfolds.