OAKLAND, Calif. (KRON) — John Lee Cowell killed Nia Wilson. His defense attorney came right out the gate during opening statements declaring that the man on trial for murder did in fact kill a young woman who he had never met.
“What occurred was a tragedy. What you just saw and heard has a strong emotional resonance,” defense attorney Christina Moore told the jury Wednesday.
Alameda County Deputy District Attorney Butch Ford’s opening statement ignored a “glaring reality,” Moore said. “John Cowell acted because of his delusional misinterpretation of the world. Not because he is evil.”
A killer, but not evil
The senseless, shocking slaying stirred up a strong public outcry in the summer of 2018 and it was perceived by Wilson’s supporters as a hate crime. Moore told the jury that Cowell had no motive, and he impulsively killed Wilson while experiencing disillusions from schizophrenia.
Cowell, 29, has pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity.
“Evil exists in this world and cause terrible things to happen to innocent people. All of those things came together at the MacArthur BART station,” Ford said. “Evil in this case has a name, and its name is John Lee Cowell.”
Ford told the jury that, while Cowell did have schizophrenia and abused drugs, neither of those were factors in the homicide.
Moore said the trial centers on one question: “What was in his mind on July 22, 2018?”
“John was actively psychotic with hallucinations and disillusions. It’s tragic that the prosecution wants you to believe that John acted because he’s evil.”
Haunting BART surveillance video
A BART surveillance video from inside an uncrowded train contains a haunting image: For 26 minutes, Wilson and her killer road the same train, looking like any other two strangers would usually look.
What happened before, during, and after the homicide was recorded by surveillance cameras, and the videos were shown publicly for the first time Wednesday as prosecutors delivered opening statements.
More than 100 million San Francisco Bay Area residents ride BART every year. Strangers who will probably never encounter each other again shuffle into trains in an orderly fashion, decide whether to stand or find a seat, and mostly stare down at their smart phones until the right stop comes along.
Wilson, 18, decided to stand and hold a strap for balance. She was wearing a summery white tank top and shorts, with her hair pulled back in long pigtails. She did not pay much attention to the unremarkable man sitting quietly a few feet away from her.
Wilson was returning home with two of her sisters from a family gathering in Concord, the same city where Cowell lived.
Wilson and her sisters didn’t notice that the man had watched them ascend an escalator at the Concord station and he boarded the train after they did. They also didn’t notice when he exited the train, nor when he pulled out a knife from under his clothing and lunged at them from behind.
In an instant, Wilson’s throat was slashed. Her older sister, Latifa Wilson, was also stabbed in the neck, but with Nia Wilson bleeding profusely, she was far more concerned about her younger sister than herself. Cowell ran down a stairwell, darted through an emergency exit, and when he came upon a group of police officers, he pretended to be fleeing with other passengers from danger.
Wilson’s mother, father, sisters, and friends gasped and cried as they watched for the first time video showing Nia Wilson being senselessly attacked by a stranger and die on the platform. Everyone seen in the video, including fellow BART passengers, looked stunned, in disbelief of what was happening.
Cowell removed from courtroom because of outburst
Deputies removed Cowell from the courtroom just two minutes into opening statements. He disputed a detail about who arrived at the Concord BART station first. Surveillance showed Cowell arriving at the station first, and Cowell tried to use that evidence to say it showed he wasn’t following the Wilson sisters. Judge Allan Hymer warned Cowell to remain silent, but after Cowell continued to speak, deputies escorted him out of the room.
He was allowed to return to the courtroom as his defense team delivered its opening statements. Cowell appeared uncomfortable when Moore left briefly to go into the judge’s chambers. He tried asking a deputy standing closest to him questions, and she shushed him as a remind that he was not permitted to talk. Cowell did not return to the courtroom for his trial in the afternoon, however, a reason was not disclosed by the judge.
A painful trial
Moore urged the jury to judge Cowell according to the law, and not according to their emotions.
“This is going to be a painful trial,” Moore told the jury. “It’s easy to see Mr. Ford’s opening statements and stop listening, stop caring about his mental state. I’m asking you to continue to listen.”
Ford asserted that the killer carried out a “tactical surprise attack” with malice and forethought. Cowell watched the Wilson sisters at the BART stations and on the train for more than a half hour before he stabbed two of them. As Cowell fled the scene, he pointed police officers back toward the BART platform pretending to be a fleeing bystander, he tossed the knife over a fence into a construction zone, and he changed his clothes.
Moore outlined the “clumsy” actions Cowell took during and after the homicide, including tossing his backpack nearby that contained all of his identification, killing someone in front of several surveillance cameras and witnesses, and continuing to ride on BART trains when he knew a manhunt for him was underway.
“Why would you get back on BART when you know the whole world is looking for you?” Moore asked. “This lets you know this wasn’t planned, not tactical. This was rash impulse.”
Testimony from key witnesses begins
Prosecutors called their first three witnesses to the stand Wednesday afternoon. They were BART police officers who found crucial pieces of evidence that revealed how the killing happened. Moore declined to cross-examine them.
No cameras, cellphones, or laptops were allowed inside the courtroom, and everyone sitting in the gallery was searched by deputies.
On Thursday morning, BART police officer Kevin Cook is slated to return to the stand to describe the first 24 hours of the investigation, including how he found Cowell’s knife tossed in a construction yard near the MacArthur station.
KRON4 Digital Reporter Amy Larson is in the courtroom covering the trial daily. You can find her latest reports here.
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