Judge finds John Lee Cowell was sane when he killed Nia Wilson

Bay Area

OAKLAND, Calif. (KRON) — Judge Allan Hymer has declared that John Lee Cowell was sane when he killed Nia Wilson on a BART platform in July 2018.

The judge took over the second verdict Monday morning so that jurors could return home in the midst of the coronavirus outbreak. The jury delivered a guilty verdict for the first phase. The judge decided the second phase with a sane ruling.

Cowell, 29, pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity and the jury was tasked with deciding two verdicts: One for the guilt phase, and a second for the sanity phase.

For the first verdict, it took the jury just two hours to find Cowell guilty of murdering Nia Wilson and attempting to murder Wilson’s sister. The jury also convicted Cowell of a special circumstance, lying in wait, because he watched and followed the Wilson sisters from the Concord BART station to the MacArthur BART station before he attacked.

MORE: Who is the real John Cowell?

Judge Allan Hymer told the jury that they must not speculate or consider Cowell’s punishment in any way while they decide on the sanity phase’s verdict.

If the jury declares that Cowell was sane at the time he killed Wilson, he would be sentenced to life in prison without possibility of parole. Cowell has told family members and jail staff workers that he’s “hopeful” the jury will find him not guilty by reason of insanity, also known as NGI, so that he could be released someday and live with his family again. If Cowell is NGI, he will be sent to a state psychiatric hospital, possibly even Atascadero State Hospital, which is the same place he was just two months before the homicide. Cowell would remain in a hospital’s custody “until a court finds he qualifies for release,” Hymer said.

Artwork of Nia Wilson and a BART map

Cowell said he attacked the “black females” because they were “aliens” and “gang members” who kidnapped his grandmother. Cowell asserted that he did nothing wrong because he was trying to save his grandmother from the alien kidnappers.

MORE: Aliens & fake skin: John Cowell testifies, describes why he stabbed Nia Wilson

Public defender Christina Moore said the trial centers on one question: “What was in his mind on July 22, 2018?” Moore built her defense case around trying to convince the jury that Cowell is legally insane, schizophrenic, hears voices, and that he driven to kill by delusions and a complete disconnect with reality. “John Cowell acted because of his delusional misinterpretation of the world. John was actively psychotic with hallucinations and disillusions,” she said.

Prosecutor Butch Ford also built his case around what was in Cowell’s mind. According to Ford, Cowell is an “evil” person who carried out a “tactical surprise attack” with malice and forethought. Ford conceded that Cowell suffers from a mental disease, however, “he knew what he was doing” and he knew it was “morally or legally wrong.”

According to the judge’s deliberation instructions to the jury, Cowell can only be found not guilty by reason of insanity if, at the time the crime was committed: 1. He had a mental disease. 2. His mental disease caused him to be incapable of understanding that his actions were morally wrong or illegal.

MORE: “Evil” debated in opening statements

Like all defendants on trial, Cowell was considered innocent until proven guilty. The burden of proof rested on the prosecution’s shoulders in the guilt phase. Once the jury declared Cowell guilty, the burden of proof shifted over to the defense for the sanity phase: Cowell is sane until proven insane.

A trial for the sanity phase was slated to happen Wednesday afternoon. On Wednesday morning, the judge threw out the defense’s only witness — a psychologist who was supposed to testify that Cowell was insane at the time he killed Wilson — and Cowell made a last-minute decision to not testify in his own defense. So when the jury was brought into the courtroom, Moore told the jurors that she was not going to present any additional evidence or call any witnesses to prove Cowell was insane and she rested her case.

The sanity trial had no opening statements, witnesses, or evidence. Moore did make a closing argument, in which she told the jury, “I’m going to be very candid with you. I had no idea I was going to be giving a closing argument today until two minutes ago. I’m going off the cuff.”

Ford said Moore failed to present any evidence during the sanity trial because “there is no evidence.”

Moore said Cowell was incapable of understanding what he was doing on July 22, 2018 because of his mental disorder.

As she explained to the jury Cowell’s mental state, Moore flipped through power point slides with text on a large screen. Cowell watched the screen intently, quietly, and sat still. His demeanor was different from his fiery antics earlier in the trial that lead to him being removed from the courtroom twice, or the fist pumping he displayed whenever the judge mentioned the phrase “not guilty.”

The sanity trial was marked by Cowell’s calmest court appearance. He seemed to be reading the power point slides as Moore spoke.

“This guy can’t even sit through this trial,” Moore said during her closing arguments. “He’s not like me or you.”

Moore finished her last power point slide and the screen went blank. Most in the courtroom gallery shifted their focus back to Moore as she walked to the other side of the room and was still talking. Cowell never looked away from the blank screen. He continued staring the blank screen, with a blank gaze.

John Cowell
John Cowell

MORE: What happens to murder defendants who are found not guilty by reason of insanity?

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