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Associated Press , Published September 28 2013

Hearing set on death penalty in Mont. murder case

BILLINGS, Mont. — A judge has scheduled a November hearing to decide whether a Colorado man charged with killing an eastern Montana teacher should be declared ineligible for the death penalty.

Richland County Judge Richard Simonton on Friday set a Nov. 4 hearing on the matter in Sidney.

Defense attorneys for 24-year-old Michael Keith Spell say he suffers from mental disabilities that preclude a death sentence under a 2002 U.S. Supreme Court ruling. Prosecutors who have filed notice that they intend to seek the death penalty in the case oppose the defense motion.

Spell, of Parachute, Colo., is accused of killing popular high school math teacher Sherry Arnold of Sidney in January 2012. Her body was found weeks later buried in a shallow grave in a rural area near Williston, N.D.

Simonton set a second hearing for Oct. 24 on several other pending matters, including a request by Spell's attorneys to relocate his Jan. 6 trial due to the widespread publicity the case has received.

The Richland County Attorney's office has argued that Spell could receive a fair trial in Sidney.

Spell's co-defendant, Lester Van Waters Jr., pleaded guilty last month under a deal that calls for him to receive a 100-year prison sentence with 20 years suspended. Waters also agreed to help in the case against Spell.

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