Judge: Nia Wilson murder trial to stay in Alameda County

Bay Area

OAKLAND (KRON) — An Alameda County Superior Court judge denied the defense’s motion Tuesday to move the Nia Wilson murder trial to another county.

John Lee Cowell is charged with murder, attempted murder, and lying in wait in connection to a July 2018 attack at the MacArthur BART station in Oakland. The killing was described by city and police officials as “vicious,” “horrific,” and “senseless.”

According to investigators, 18-year-old Nia Wilson was fatally slashed in the throat. One of her sister’s, 26-year-old Letifah Wilson, was also stabbed in the neck and survived, and another sister, Tashiya Wilson, was uninjured.

Nia Wilson / Facebook

Cowell’s defense attorney, Christina Moore, filed a motion to change the venue of the trial, saying that Cowell will not have a fair trial locally due to “inflammatory,” widespread media coverage, and because of comments made by BART officials.

When Judge Allan Hymer announced his decision to keep the trial in Alameda County, the Wilson family cheered and clapped.

Hymer said the trial will be racially-charged, no matter which county a jury is pooled from. The Wilson sisters are black and Cowell is white.

Social media has spread information about the case far beyond the San Francisco Bay Area, the judge said. The defense team’s survey, which concluded that the majority of residents already believe that the defendant is guilty, was misleading, and was not a fully accurate representation of Alameda County residents, according to Hymer.

Family members of Nia Wilson wore shirts and sweatshirts saying “I am Nia Wilson” and “Black Girls: Our Lives Matter.”

Outside the courthouse, Nia Wilson’s mother, Alicia Grayson, told reporters that the judge made the right decision. “When it happened in this county, it should stay,” she said.

Cowell, 29, remains locked in Santa Rita Jail without bail.

He has pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity. Jury selection is slated to being this week, however, Judge Hymer will review another psychiatric report Wednesday reviewing whether Cowell is mentally competent to stand trial.

KRON4 asked the Wilson family if they believe Cowell was insane when he attacked the three sisters moments after they exited a BART train.

“No. He knew what he was doing,” Grayson said.

Tashiya Wilson said, “He attacked us for no apparent reason. A lot of people ride public transportation. He chose to pick us, three innocent people. It was a tragic moment. I still think about it to this day and it will never leave my mindset. I just hope he gets what he deserves.”

When asked if she believes Cowell was trying to kill all three sisters, Letifah Wilson said, “Yes.”

Tashiya Wilson agreed, saying, “If I didn’t get on BART before my sisters, I would have been the third victim. I had to sit there and watch my sister take her last breath.”

Nia Wilson / Facebook

Nia Wilson’s killer never said a word during or after the attack, her sisters said.

“He stood there and watched (Nia Wilson dying). He didn’t care. He hit the youngest first, then tried to take me out. Shows the type of man you are: A coward,” Letifah Wilson said.

The motive behind the shocking homicide has never been released by investigators. It initially sparked national outrage over what was perceived as a racially-motivated killing. Letifah Wilson remains confident that she and her sisters were targeted because, “He wanted to tear down black women. Strong black women.”

Since losing her daughter, Grayson said she has learned to expect the worst. So she was happily surprised when the judge denied Cowell’s defense team’s motion, and ruled to keep the trial in Alameda County.

Judge Hymer explained his decision in court Tuesday as Cowell quietly listened and the gallery was packed with Nia Wilson’s supporters.

“A change in venue would accomplish nothing,” Hymer said.

Hymer noted that he was a criminal defense attorney for nearly three decades before becoming a judge, and he believes the county has a history of fair jurors making good decisions on controversial cases. Verdicts for trials with “extensive, inflammatory pre-trial publicity” can go both ways, he said.

John Lee Cowell
John Lee Cowell

The judge listed six reasons for his decision:

  1. The racially-charged nature of the crime — a white man is accused of killing a black woman — will remain an inflammatory aspect of the case no matter where it is tried.
  2. The crime occurred on BART, and Alameda County are more familiar with the BART system than potential jurors would be from other counties.
  3. Social media spread publicity of the crime far beyond the San Francisco Bay Area.
  4. The defense team’s survey — which stated that the majority of Alameda County residents already believed Cowell committed the crime — was “to some extent, misleading,” the judge said. He also stressed that a trial is different than a survey.
  5. The grand jury’s indictment was sealed.
  6. The victims and defendant were not high profile figures in the county before the homicide.

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