32 year old Michael E. Johnson of Sparta, charged in the fatal shooting of another Sparta man in January, appeared in DeKalb County Criminal Court Friday and was set to enter a guilty plea under a negotiated settlement with state prosecutors.
However when Judge Lillie Ann Sells learned that Johnson had previously been treated for a mental condition and was no longer under a doctor's care or taking medication, she refused to accept a plea and instead ordered Johnson to undergo a mental evaluation at Plateau Mental Health Center in Cookeville to determine his competency to stand trial or enter a plea in the case.
Johnson and a co-defendant, 26 year old Tina Rose Bain, were each indicted by a DeKalb County Grand Jury in April on charges of first degree murder, attempted first degree murder, felony murder, and theft over $1,000.
The two are charged in the shooting death of 21 year old David Anthony Welch of Sparta and the wounding of 23 year old Heather Trapp of Smithville. Both Welch and Trapp were shot at Trapp's home during the pre-dawn hours of January 6th on Webb Lane.
The indictments allege that the defendants did unlawfully, intentionally and with premeditation kill Welch during the perpetration of or an attempt to perpetrate theft and that they unlawfully and knowingly obtained or exercised control over property including, but not limited to, a necklace and ring valued at over $1,000 belonging to Trapp.
After the shooting, Johnson and Bain left the scene in their car but were arrested later that day in White County. They were brought to the DeKalb County Jail and after several hours of questioning, were charged in the shooting. Their car was also impounded.
Judge Sells, during Friday's proceedings, asked Johnson to elaborate on his past mental health record. Johnson told her that he had been diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic and a manic depressant with a bi-polar disorder but that he is currently not under the care of a mental health expert and is not taking medication for his condition
Judge Sells then asked Johnson if he had any prior convictions. He told her that had been convicted in White and Putnam County on charges of aggravated assault, escape, being a fugitive from justice, and reckless endangerment with a vehicle among others.
In refusing to accept Johnson's guilty plea, Judge Sells said that \" the court has a very serious obligation in taking a guilty plea to make sure that the defendant clearly understands what he's doing in giving up all his rights to a jury trial and all these other rights we've talked about. But also very important is that we have to be sure that the person before the court is competent to enter a guilty plea and I am not at all convinced of that today based on your mental health record. We're going to have to look at that mental health record very seriously. I'm going to order that you be re-evaluated so see whether or not you are competent to go to trial or enter this guilty plea. If I took a guilty plea in a first degree murder case from someone with the serious diagnoses you have who is supposed to be on medication ordered by a mental health expert but who quit taking his medicine, it wouldn't be worth a flip. It (sentence) would probably be set aside. If after the evaluation, they say you're competent we'll take your plea and go about our way. But we have to have that on the record before I can go forward.\"
Johnson and Bain will be back in court on August 21st.
Bain's case has been set for trial later this year.
Johnson is represented by attorney J. Hilton Conger. John Pryor is Bain's lawyer.