Montana doctor says murder suspect fit for trial

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Defense attorney Al Avignone, left, questions psychologist Greg Olley during testimony, Monday, March 24, 2014 in Sidney, Mont. on whether a Colorado man should stand trial in the 2012 killing of a Montana teacher. Olley testified that 24-year-old defendant Michael Keith Spell has an intelligence level comparable to an 11-year-old and is not fit for trial. (AP Photo/Matthew Brown)

Defense attorney Al Avignone, left, questions psychologist Greg Olley during testimony, Monday, March 24, 2014 in Sidney, Mont. on whether a Colorado man should stand trial in the 2012 killing of a Montana teacher. Olley testified that 24-year-old defendant Michael Keith Spell has an intelligence level comparable to an 11-year-old and is not fit for trial. (AP Photo/Matthew Brown)

FILE – In this Jan. 9, 2012 file photo, the Chamber of Commerce sign in Sidney, Mont. offers prayers as friends, law enforcement and volunteers search the area around Sidney for high school teacher Sherry Arnold, 43, who went missing. Michael Keith Spell’s bid to avoid trial and a potential death sentence in the killing of Arnold goes before a state judge Monday, March 24, 2014, to decide if the defendant is mentally disabled. His attorneys say Keith Spell, 24, has the mental capacities of a first-grader and is unfit for trial. If Judge Richard Simonton agrees, Spell could be sent to a state institution indefinitely. He’s charged with murdering Sherry Arnold in Jan. 2012 as she was jogging near her home in Sidney, Mont., then burying her body in North Dakota. An accomplice, Lester Van Waters, Jr., pleaded guilty under a plea deal that calls for him to testify against Spell. (AP Photo/The Billings Gazette, Larry Mayer)

FILE – This undated photo provided by the Sidney, Mt., Police Dept. shows Sidney High School math teacher Sherry Arnold. Michael Keith Spell’s bid to avoid trial and a potential death sentence in the killing of Arnold goes before a state judge Monday, March 24, 2014, to decide if the defendant is mentally disabled. His attorneys say Michael Keith Spell, 24, has the mental capacities of a first-grader and is unfit for trial. If Judge Richard Simonton agrees, Spell could be sent to a state institution indefinitely. He’s charged with murdering Sherry Arnold in Jan. 2012 as she was jogging near her home in Sidney, Mont., then burying her body in North Dakota. An accomplice, Lester Van Waters, Jr., pleaded guilty under a plea deal that calls for him to testify against Spell. (AP Photo/Sidney Montana Police Dept., File)

FILE – In this Feb. 28, 2012 file photo, Michael Keith Spell arrives at Montana state district court in Sidney, Mont. for a hearing in the case of murdered Montana teacher Sherry Arnold. The Colorado man’s bid to avoid trial and a potential death sentence in the killing of an eastern Montana teacher goes before a state judge Monday, March 24, 2014 to decide if the defendant is incompetent due to mental disability. His attorneys say 24-year-old Spell has the mental capacities of a first-grader and is unfit for trial. If Judge Richard Simonton agrees, Spell could be sent to a state institution indefinitely. (AP Photo/Matt Brown, File)

FILE – This Feb. 28, 2012 photo shows Lester Van Waters, in state district court in Sidney, Mont. for a hearing in the case of murdered Montana teacher Sherry Arnold. Michael Keith Spell’s bid to avoid trial and a potential death sentence in the killing of Arnold goes before a state judge Monday, March 24, 2014, to decide if the defendant is mentally disabled. His attorneys say Spell, 24, has the mental capacities of a first-grader and is unfit for trial. If Judge Richard Simonton agrees, Spell could be sent to a state institution indefinitely. He’s charged with murdering Sherry Arnold in Jan. 2012 as she was jogging near her home in Sidney, Mont., then burying her body in North Dakota. An accomplice, Lester Van Waters, Jr., pleaded guilty under a plea deal that calls for him to testify against Spell. (AP Photo/Matt Brown)

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SIDNEY, Mont. (AP) — A state psychiatrist said Tuesday that a Colorado man is competent to stand trial in the murder of an eastern Montana teacher despite his low scores on mental-fitness tests.

The testimony in a Sidney, Mont., courtroom from psychiatrist Virginia Hill contrasted sharply with a defense portrayal of Michael Keith Spell, 24, as not fit for trial because he is mentally disabled and unable to understand the case against him.

Hill suggested Spell’s low test scores belie his mental competency.

She described him mental disability as mild. Hill said he was observed playing video games, doing his own laundry and manipulating 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 is charged with killing Sidney High School teacher Sherry Arnold in 2012. He could face the death penalty if convicted.

The case has unfolded as crime rates spiked in eastern Montana and neighboring parts of North Dakota, where an oil boom has transformed once-quiet agricultural communities. The killing of Arnold — a Sidney High School math teacher widely beloved in the community — stood out for its violent, random nature.

Co-defendant Lester Van Waters Jr., who was implicated by Spell as Arnold’s killer, has pleaded guilty under a deal with prosecutors.

The case is being overseen by Montana District Judge Richard Simonton. He’s so far given no indication of how he will reconcile the competing claims from the two sides.

Court documents, including law-enforcement affidavits and testimony from Spell’s accomplice, say the defendants arrived in Montana after a drug-fueled drive from Parachute, Colo., and spotted Arnold along a Sidney street. Arnold died after Spell choked or otherwise asphyxiated her during an attempted abduction, according to prosecutors.

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