Documents question if Downtown Memphis crime spree suspect is competent to stand trial

MEMPHIS, TN (WMC) - The WMC Action News 5 investigators uncovered court documents that put the competency of a man accused of running down and killing a Memphis police officer in question.

Justin Welch is charged with first-degree murder in the death of MPD officer Verdell Smith. Smith's death was the result of a wild crime spree in Downtown Memphis back in June of 2016.

Welch was only back in front of Judge Mark Ward on Friday for a few minutes, but it was long enough to reveal bombshell developments in the high-profile case.

Public defenders for Welch submitted a petition in late June asking for a competency hearing. In the request, they point to findings from an examination of Welch at the Middle Tennessee Mental Health Institute in Nashville in May and June.

The evaluation team at the facility also sent a letter to Judge Mark Ward, stating they believe Welch is not capable of adequately assisting his attorney and does not understand the legal matter against him. The document goes on to say Welch can't participate in his own defense, and it recommends he be judicially committed to a mental health institute, suggesting the Western Mental Health Institute in Bolivar, Tennessee.

Other medical documents submitted to the Court reveal that Welch is bipolar, has been hospitalized multiple times before, and still has manic symptoms. One physician's report called him a danger.

Welch's public defender said he couldn't discuss specifics of the case.

"Our office has a policy not to talk about ongoing cases," said Rob Gowen, with the Shelby County Public Defender's Office.

The crime spree Welch is accused of committing in June 2016 started with shots fired at Westy's restaurant. Josh Walton and another man were shot; Walton recently died from his injuries.

Welch then allegedly shot a man at Bass Pro, stole a car, and ran over Officer Smith at the corner of Third and Beale streets.
Welch has already been indicted on 14 criminal charges, but it's unclear if those charges will be upgraded in light of Walton's death. Shelby County District Attorney's office said it is awaiting a final medical examiner's report.
Friday, Judge Mark Ward agreed to set a competency hearing date for October 12 and 13. The results of that hearing will likely decide how the case will proceed.

Welch's family members initially agreed to speak with WMC Action News 5 on Friday, but they later changed their mind and declined to comment.

Attorneys for both sides will meet before the competency hearing, on August 25.

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