OAKLAND, Calif. (KRON) — Nia Wilson’s family said it is hoping for one thing to achieve justice: A life prison sentence for John Cowell.
Closing arguments will begin March 9 and jury deliberations will follow shortly after. A life prison sentence for the 29-year-old Concord man will be possible if the jury’s verdicts find Cowell was mentally sane at the time of the homicide.
Before the jury deliberates for the sanity phase, it will deliberate over guilt. Cowell and his defense attorney, Christina Moore, have already admitted that he killed Wilson and stabbed Wilson’s sister on a BART train in the summer of 2018. Cowell is charged with murder, attempted murder, and lying in wait. Cowell pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity. Therefore Cowell’s fate relies on whether or not the jury believes he is sane or insane.
Could Cowell, years down the road, be set free and ride a BART train again?
Cowell’s mind began spiraling out of control with paranoia, violent tendencies, and hearing voices around the time of his 18th birthday, friends and family members testified on the witness stand this month. Psychiatrists testified that Cowell is a schizophrenic man who hears voices, has delusions, and abuses street drugs.
The senseless homicide was recorded on video by BART surveillance cameras. For the majority of the trial, prosecutor Butch Ford and public defender Christina Moore sparred over whether Cowell’s gruesome caught-on-camera behavior proves that he was a drug-addicted, cold, calculated killer, or, a delusional, paranoid, mentally sick man.
Cowell is currently living inside an isolated cell in Alameda County’s Santa Rita Jail with no bail. Psychiatrists who evaluated Cowell during his time in the jail over the past two years disagreed over whether he was competent to stand trial. He was ultimately found competent and Cowell asserted his right for a speedy trial.
If the jury’s verdict declares Cowell insane, he will not spend a day in a state prison. Instead, he will be sent to a state mental hospital. The state mental hospital system is very different from the state prison system, Alameda County Sheriff’s Sgt. Ray Kelly said.
Cowell could end up back at Atascadero State Hospital, where he was institutionalized just two months before he killed Wilson. And that is exactly what Cowell is hoping for, according to Ford.
During the trial, Ford played jail phone calls for the jury that Cowell made to his family a few week ago. Cowell told his father and aunt, “I love you. I’m in Santa Rita having a blast. I’m doing really good, I’m really happy. Everything is looking really great. I want to live with my family again. I love living at home with my family.”
What happens to NGI murder trial defendants?
Jail staff members testified that Cowell has expressed to them that he was feeling hopeful that the jury would find him not guilty by reason of insanity, also known as “NGI.”
With that possibility looming, some trial observers are wondering, will Cowell be released back into society in the future? What conditions will he have to meet to leave the hospital?
KRON4 asked the California Department of State Hospitals about what happens, years down the road, to a person deemed not guilty by reason of a sanity.
The DSH’s spokesman Ken August declined an interview request and emailed a written responses to KRON4’s inquiry.
“The California courts determine whether or not an individual is Not Guilty by Reason of Insanity (NGI). The Court may order an individual who has been determined as an NGI to DSH or any other appropriate public or private treatment facility approved by the community program director, or into an outpatient status through DSH’s Conditional Release Program (CONREP). If an individual is committed to DSH, then DSH’s role is to provide treatment at a state hospital. NGI patients are committed to a state hospital for treatment for a period equal to the maximum sentence of their most serious offense, or prior to reaching maximum sentencing if the Court finds, pursuant to Penal Code section 1026.2, that the sanity of the patient has been recovered. Additionally, individuals committed to DSH as NGI may also be released to community outpatient treatment, with a court’s approval, through DSH’s Conditional Release Program (CONREP) pursuant to Penal Code sections 1600 et. seq. In all cases, the courts determine when a person can be released and DSH complies with the court orders,” August wrote.
Historically, the length of time that an NGI patient remains committed in a mental hospital depends on progress. If doctors feel that the person has been rehabilitated through years of treatment and their sanity restored, they can eventually be released back into society through the state’s Conditional Release Program.
What is the Conditional Release Program?
On its website, the California Department of State Hospitals details its Conditional Release Program as follows:
“DSH’s Conditional Release Program is a statewide system of community based services which treats patients with the following commitment types: Not Guilty by Reason of Insanity, Incompetent to Stand Trial, Mentally Disordered Offenders, and some parolees who have been released to outpatient status. The goal of CONREP is to ensure public protection in California communities while providing an effective and standardized outpatient treatment system.”
“Most patients in the CONREP program have gotten there after a lengthy stay in a state hospital. Once psychiatric symptoms have been stabilized and the patients are considered no longer to be a danger, the state hospital medical director recommends eligible inpatients to the courts for outpatient treatment under CONREP. Individuals must agree to follow a treatment plan designed by the outpatient supervisor and approved by the committing court. The court-approved treatment plan includes provisions for involuntary outpatient services. In order to protect the public, individuals who do not comply with treatment may be returned to a state hospital. CONREP patients receive an intensive regimen of treatment and supervision that includes individual and group contact with clinical staff, random drug screenings, home visits, substance abuse screenings and psychological assessments.”
Murder suspects found NGI and sent to mental hospitals
The following cases are a few recent examples from the San Francisco Bay Area of murder trials that resulted in NGI verdicts and the defendants being sent to mental institutions:
Omar Pettigen : Pettigen killed his mother by stabbing and shooting her before he ripped her heart out inside her Fremont home in Sept. 2015. A jury found him guilty during the guilty phase of deliberations, then not guilty by reason of insanity during the sanity phase of deliberations.
The East Bay Times writes : “Pettigen testified that he remembered taking a shower at his mother’s Fremont home, then the voices telling him he needed to go kill his mother. He then took a hammer and an ax from the wall, and accused his mother of being the witch of Josephine Baker (a deceased American-French entertainer active in the French Resistance in World War II). He said he believed he needed to kill his mother before she killed him.”
Pablo Gomez Jr. : Gomez fatally stabbed a young woman whom he had never met inside her Berkeley home on Jan. 6, 2017.
Berkeleyside.com writes, “A devastating murder case concluded in Alameda County Superior Court with a judge finding Pablo Gomez Jr. not guilty by reason of insanity and confining the convicted killer to a state mental hospital for 39 years to life. Gomez fatally stabbed 27-year-old Emilie Juliette Inman at her Berkeley home in 2017. The two had never met. On Jan. 6, 2017, Gomez got a ride to Inman’s home on Ashby Avenue where a friend had once lived. But instead of finding that friend, Gomez found Inman. Gomez used one of Inman’s kitchen knives to murder her, then meticulously hid her body under a yellow-flowering bush in her yard before ultimately fleeing to Southern California. The night before, Gomez and other friends at UC Berkeley had taken part in a Día de Los Reyes ceremony that may have involved drug use and, according to the court, ultimately preceded a violent psychotic break with reality.”
Hakim Madjour : A Walnut Creek security guard beat his co-worker to death with a pole on March 8, 2018. Madjour was a schizophrenic who blamed “voices in his head” for making him kill Harry Swayne. He was sentenced to 15 years to life in a mental institution.
The East Bay Times writes, “The sentence for Hakim Madjour, 36, was reached through a plea deal. Madjour — who had been diagnosed as suffering from schizophrenia — had recently had the dosage for his medication temporarily lowered after there was an unexpected delay in renewing his prescription. Swayne’s niece said she believed Madjour ‘should not be free in any capacity to walk the streets. Most mentally ill people do not commit violent acts…Mr. Madjour, however, is different. In his battle with mental illness he committed one of the most heinous acts against an innocent victim.'”