State v. Spell

Decision Date01 November 2017
Docket NumberDA 15-0411
Citation2017 MT 266,404 P.3d 725,389 Mont. 172
Parties STATE of Montana, Plaintiff and Appellee, v. Michael Keith SPELL, Defendant and Appellant.
CourtMontana Supreme Court

For Appellant: Wendy Holton, Attorney at Law, Helena, Montana

For Appellee: Timothy C. Fox, Montana Attorney General, Tammy A. Hinderman, Assistant Attorney General, Helena, Montana, Mike Weber, Richland County Attorney, Joel Thompson, Special Deputy County Attorney, Sidney, Montana

Chief Justice Mike McGrath delivered the Opinion of the Court.

¶ 1 This is an appeal from the Seventh Judicial District Court's determination that Michael Spell (Spell) was competent to stand trial and that, at the time of the offense, Spell was able to appreciate his behavior and conform to the requirements of the law. We affirm.

¶ 2 Spell presents the following issues for review:

1. Whether the District Court erred when it found Michael Spell competent to stand trial.
2. Whether the District Court erred when it found that, at the time of the offense, Michael Spell was able to appreciate his behavior and conform his conduct to the requirements of the law.
3. Whether sentencing Michael Spell to prison violated his constitutional rights to be free from cruel and unusual punishments and to human dignity.

¶ 3 On January 7, 2012, Gary Arnold returned home after a morning walk and noticed his wife, Sherry Arnold (Arnold) was not there.1 As she was an avid walker and jogger, Gary assumed Arnold had gone out for a jog. Gary became concerned when Arnold did not return home and went out to look for her. When Gary could not find Arnold, he contacted family and local law enforcement. A search for Arnold ensued.

¶ 4 The search for Arnold turned up one of her running shoes on one of her known jogging routes along Holly Street, otherwise known as the "Truck Route" in northeast Sidney, Montana. An investigation regarding Arnold's disappearance began. The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) joined the investigation on January 9, 2012.

¶ 5 On January 11, 2012, law enforcement received information regarding communications made between Spell and his family members concerning a woman that he and another man, Lester Waters (Waters), kidnapped and killed. The tip stated that Spell contacted his girlfriend, Angel Cruz (Cruz), and told her he was stranded in North Dakota and was attempting to get home to Parachute, Colorado. Cruz stated that Spell and Waters left Parachute on January 4, 2012, in a green Ford Explorer to look for work in the oil fields near Williston, North Dakota. Spell's father was also aware of Spell's involvement in the kidnapping and homicide of a woman.

¶ 6 On January 12, 2012, FBI Special Agents spoke with Cruz, who informed them that Spell and Waters abducted a woman and killed her. Cruz told the agents that Spell said Waters made Spell shove the woman's face in a "puddle of mud, like water, until she was dead" and then forced Spell to bury the woman's body. Spell said he was afraid that Waters would kill him. Spell also told Cruz that Waters made Spell smoke crack cocaine while driving to North Dakota, and that he was now in Rapid City, South Dakota.

¶ 7 Also on January 12, 2012, a 1993 green Ford Explorer with a Colorado license plate was located by police officers in Williston, North Dakota. The driver matched Waters' description. Waters was arrested and detained for questioning. An inventory of Waters' personal belongings revealed a purchase receipt dated January 7, 2012, from a Walmart in Williston for items including a shovel.

¶ 8 On January 13, 2012, FBI Special Agents located and interviewed Spell. Spell confessed that he and Waters abducted and killed Arnold and provided the following narrative to investigators. Spell stated he and Waters left Parachute, Colorado, two or three days before they abducted Arnold while she was jogging. Waters was smoking crack cocaine during their trip and Waters told Spell that crack cocaine brought "the devil" out in Waters. Waters began talking about kidnapping and killing a female. When the two were driving through a town and saw a woman running along the road, Waters told Spell to grab and pull her into their vehicle as she jogged by. Waters parked on the side of the road and Spell got out of the vehicle, grabbed the woman, and forced her into the vehicle. In doing so, the woman's shoe fell off. This made Waters mad, and he threw Spell's knit hat into the ditch as punishment. Spell's hat was later found in a large ditch near the area where Arnold's shoe was recovered.

¶ 9 Spell stated that once the woman was in the car, Waters got into the back seat and "choked her out." Waters said he would kill Spell and Spell's family if he ever told anyone what happened. Waters then threw the woman's clothes in a dumpster behind a truck stop before he and Spell dropped off Arnold's body outside of town. They went back into Williston and purchased a shovel at Walmart. At the direction of Waters, Spell dug a hole near where they dropped Arnold's body off and placed her in it. Afraid of what Waters might do next, Spell stole Waters' telephone and began hitchhiking until he got to Rapid City, South Dakota.

¶ 10 On February 28, 2012, Special Agent Overby of the Williams County Law Enforcement Center, Williston, North Dakota, interviewed Michael Pruit, who had been incarcerated with Spell at the Williams County Law Enforcement Center Jail. Pruit stated Spell told him Waters was the instigator in the kidnapping of Arnold and told Spell what to do. Spell said Arnold was jogging on a path and he approached her. Spell said Arnold said "hi" as they passed each other. Spell said he turned around and speared Arnold in the back of the head and knocked her down, choked her, pushed her face into some water, and drowned her. Spell told Pruit the reason for the kidnapping was that he and Waters were high on drugs and Waters wanted to have sex.

¶ 11 On March 19, 2012, Waters assisted in the search for Arnold. He and Special Agent Overby found Arnold's body buried outside Williston, North Dakota. An autopsy revealed a black and gritty, but unidentified material in Arnold's stomach and trachea.

¶ 12 On February 17, 2012, the Richland County Attorney filed an Information, charging Spell with Aggravated Kidnapping, a felony. On February 28, 2012, Spell entered a plea of not guilty to this charge. On April 27, 2012, additional felony charges were brought against Spell including Deliberate Homicide and Attempted Kidnapping. On May 15, 2012, Spell entered a plea of not guilty to these two charges.

¶ 13 Trial was scheduled to begin on January 6, 2014. This date was continued because on October 31, 2013, Spell filed a motion for an order to determine his ability to understand the proceedings against him and to assist in his own defense, and to determine whether he was suffering from a developmental disability that rendered him unable to appreciate the criminality of his behavior or to conform his behavior to the requirements of the law. On November 4, 2013, the District Court committed Spell to the Montana State Hospital for an examination pursuant to § 46-14-202, MCA. Spell was transported to the Montana State Hospital in Warm Springs (State Hospital), Montana, on November 13, 2013. Following a lengthy evaluation, mental health professionals at the State Hospital determined Spell was fit to proceed. This determination was contrary to the findings of J. Gregory Olley, Ph.D. (Dr. Olley), and Craig W. Beaver, Ph.D. (Dr. Beaver), the defense experts.

¶ 14 On March 24 and 25, 2014, a hearing was held to determine Spell's competency to stand trial. The District Court heard testimony from and read the reports of expert witnesses Dr. Olley, Dr. Beaver, and Dr. Virginia Hill (Dr. Hill).2 The District Court concluded that while "the quality of the Defendant's presentation at the two day hearing and his proposed findings and brief are very impressive.... [T]he test of competency is not dependent upon appearances." On May 16, 2014, the District Court determined that Spell was competent to stand trial.

¶ 15 On October 22, 2014, pursuant to a written Acknowledgment of Rights and Plea Agreement, Spell pled guilty to the Deliberate Homicide charge. The District Court ordered a presentence investigation. The plea agreement provided that the Attempted Kidnapping charge would be dismissed, and it was dismissed by the District Court after holding a sentencing hearing on April 17, 2015. On May 18, 2015, the District Court sentenced Spell to the Montana State Prison for a term of 100 years for Deliberate Homicide, a felony, and violation of § 45-5-102(1)(b), MCA.


¶ 16 When reviewing a district court's finding of competence, we inquire whether substantial evidence supports the district court's decision that the defendant was fit to proceed to trial. State v. McCarthy , 2004 MT 312, ¶ 20, 324 Mont. 1, 101 P.3d 288 (citations omitted). The evidence may conflict, but it is substantial if any reasonable trier of fact could rely upon the evidence in support of its conclusion. State v. Statczar , 228 Mont. 446, 456, 743 P.2d 606, 613 (1987).

¶ 17 This Court reviews a criminal sentence that imposes a year or more of actual incarceration for legality. State v. Herman , 2008 MT 187, ¶ 11, 343 Mont. 494, 188 P.3d 978. The district court's determination of the existence of mental disease, disorder, or developmental disability pursuant to § 46-14-311, MCA, is reviewed for an abuse of discretion. State v. Gallmeier , 2009 MT 68, ¶ 11, 349 Mont. 424, 203 P.3d 852 (citations omitted). A district court abuses its discretion when it "acts arbitrarily without employment of conscientious judgment or exceeds the bounds of reason, resulting in substantial injustice." State v. Burke , 2005 MT 250, ¶ 11, 329 Mont. 1, 122 P.3d 427.

¶ 18 This Court will exercise plenary review of constitutional issues, and a district...

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  • State v. Coburn
    • United States
    • Montana Supreme Court
    • October 9, 2018
    ...for abuse of discretion a district court’s determination of the existence of a mental disease or defect under § 46-14-311, MCA. State v. Spell , 2017 MT 266, ¶ 17, 389 Mont. 172, 404 P.3d 725 (citing State v. Gallmeier , 2009 MT 68, ¶ 11, 349 Mont. 424, 203 P.3d 852 ); State v. Collier , 27......

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