BILLINGS — A state judge on Thursday moved the trial of a Colorado man charged with killing a popular eastern Montana teacher after defense attorneys argued that he could not receive a fair hearing in her hometown.
District Judge Richard Simonton moved Michael Keith Spell’s Jan. 6 murder trial to Glendive, court officials said. That’s about 50 miles away from the small community of Sidney, where victim Sherry Arnold taught high school math.
Prosecutors have said they intend to seek the death penalty in the case. Attorneys for Spell, 24, argued he could not receive a fair trial in Sidney because of the heavy news coverage surrounding the case. They wanted it moved to Bozeman, more than 400 miles away.
The office of County Attorney Mike Weber argued against any change of venue but suggested Glendive as one possible alternative if a move had to be made.
Spell is charged with attempted kidnapping and deliberate homicide in Arnold’s January 2012 killing.
His co-defendant, Lester Van Waters Jr., pleaded guilty in August under a deal calls for him to be spared the death penalty and receive 100 years in prison in exchange for testifying against Spell.
Authorities said the pair came to Montana looking for work in the Bakken oil patch. After a cocaine-fueled drive from Spell’s hometown of Parachute, Colo., authorities say Spell grabbed Arnold while she was jogging down a Sidney street and choked her or held her face in a puddle until she was dead.
Defense attorneys also argued Thursday for the suppression of an alleged confession Spell made after his arrest. Spell has mental disabilities that his attorneys contend made it impossible for him to waive his rights prior to statements to law enforcement in which authorities say he admitted to certain aspects of the case.
Simonton said in an order last week that he will not make a decision on the alleged confession until after an upcoming hearing that will address Spell’s mental status.
The defense wants Spell declared ineligible for the death penalty under a 2002 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that banned executions of the mentally disabled as cruel and unusual punishment.
Simonton on Thursday vacated a Nov. 4 hearing on the death penalty issue so that the two sides could arrange for experts to testify. It was not immediately re-scheduled, said Richland County Clerk of Court Janice Klempel.
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