Judge delays ruling in Justin Welch competency hearing

Judge delays ruling in Justin Welch competency hearing

MEMPHIS, Tenn. (WMC) - More delays are anticipated in the murder trial of the man accused of killing Memphis Police Officer Verdell Smith and a restaurant patron in June of 2016. Thursday, questions were raised about Justin Welch’s competency.

Testimony revealed court ordered medication was not given to Welch at the state’s mental health facility. So when it came time for his trial Monday flags were raised.

Witnesses described the incident as chaotic. A crime spree that started when police say Justin Welch shot two people at Westy’s on North Main Street killing Joshua Walton, then shooting an employee at Bass Pro Shops at the Pyramid. Following a chase with police, investigators say Welch drove to Beale and Third Street, where his vehicle hit Officer Verdell Smith.

On the eve of the murder trial questions are being raised if Welch is mentally fit to stand trial.

“Right now, I don’t feel comfortable saying ‘I think he’s competent. Go ahead and try him,'” said Debbie Nichols.

Since 2017, state social worker Debbie Nichols has performed several mental evaluations on Welch.

Just 48 hours before jury selection was to begin, Nichols and Welch’s attorney told the judge they witnessed concerning behavior.

“During that evaluation he appeared grossly psychotic,” she said.

Nichols testified Welch was previous diagnosed with bipolar disorder with psychotic features. Her fear, in his current state the stress of the trial could bring on psychosis.

Nichols also said after reviewing his medical records it appeared staff at DeBerry Special Needs Facility stopped giving Welch his medication in October as required by a court order after Welch refused to take them.

Despite previously being ruled competent to stand trial in February 2018, the judge now questions the ruling after hearing testimony about Welch’s current state, not consistently taking his medication.

“It’s a close case but I don’t see any reasons to take any chances. I don’t see that he’s in a position to go to trial today,” said W. Mark Ward. Judge Criminal Court Division 9.

Friday, Welch will be back in court where he will be asked for consent for a blood draw to determine how much medication is in his body. If he refuses, the judge will sign a court order. Monday morning the judge will decide if Welch is fit for trial.

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