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Associated Press, Published June 18 2013

Defense lawyers in teacher's murder case want to move trial

BILLINGS, Mont. — Attorneys for one of two men charged in the killing of Sidney high school teacher Sherry Arnold want his trial moved to Bozeman, saying that potential jurors in eastern Montana were so outraged by the case that they already think he's guilty.

Michael Keith Spell and Lester Van Waters Jr., both of Colorado, have pleaded not guilty to charges they grabbed Arnold from a Sidney street on Jan. 7, killed her and buried her body in a North Dakota field.

Court documents filed earlier this month by Spell's attorneys argued that Arnold's popularity in the community — coupled with widespread, “inflammatory” news reports — have biased potential jurors in eastern Montana.

The attorneys said they conducted a survey that showed more than three-quarters of potential jurors in the 7th Judicial District believe Spell is guilty. That includes Sidney and several surrounding counties.

Spell's trial is set for Jan. 6 before Judge Richard Simonton.

“There is no indication that the community passions about this case and Mr. Spell have or will diminish before the trial date in this matter,” defense attorneys Al Avignone and Lisa Banick wrote.

They also cited numerous comments posted with newspaper articles about the case in which readers called for “Old West Justice” and for the suspects to “hang from the nearest tree.”

Banick and Avignone asked for the trial to be moved to Gallatin County because the case received less publicity in the Bozeman area. They said county officials already had agreed to reserve a courtroom for the trial.

In a separate motion, Spell's attorneys want to exclude statements he made about his involvement. Because he is illiterate and mentally disabled, the attorneys said, Spell was unable to understand that he was waiving his Constitutional rights when he told investigators about his role in Arnold's slaying.

Waters’ trial is set to begin Nov. 4. Court officials said Tuesday they have not received a change of venue request in his case.

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