OAKLAND, Calif. (KRON) — The man convicted of stabbing Nia Wilson to death on a BART train in Oakland was sentenced Friday to spend the rest of his life in prison without possibility of parole. A unique sentencing hearing was conducted via a livestream during which the victim’s family spoke from a courthouse in Oakland, and the killer listened from a courthouse in Dublin.
John Lee Cowell was found guilty by a jury of murdering 18-year-old Nia Wilson and attempting to murder her sister, Letifah Wilson. Cowell had pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity, but in March an Alameda County judge ruled that Cowell was sane at the time of the shocking, brutal attack.
Cowell was diagnosed with schizophrenia, and during his trial, Cowell’s defense team said his mental illness caused him to have a psychotic break from reality. When Cowell testified in this own defense by saying he believed that Nia Wilson and her two sisters were “gang members” and “aliens” who kidnapped his grandmother.
“There were three black females working together. They were staring me down. It’s not illegal to said, save, or rescue a family member. I stabbed the females because they would not give my grandmother back,” Cowell told the jury.
Lead prosecutor Butch Ford told the jury that Cowell was trying to fool them by pretending to be “crazy.” BART surveillance cameras provided crucial evidence showing Cowell before, during, and after the homicide. Cowell rode on the same BART train for the Wilson sisters for 26 minutes, followed them, and stabbed them as they were attempting to get on a second train. Cowell then fled from the BART station, hid the knife, changed his clothes, and got on a bus.
Prosecutors used the surveillance video footage to prove that the homicide was premeditated and deliberate.
The Wilson family believes that Cowell, who is white, attacked the sisters because they are black. The attack in the summer of 2018 sparked marches and calls for social justice in Oakland. Ford said “evil” was the motive behind the murder.
Nia Wilson came from a large, loving family. Some of her family members were able to make victim impact statements during Friday’s sentencing hearing via a livestream.
Ever since he was arrested, Cowell has been an inmate in the Santa Rita Jail in Alameda County. But even after his sentencing, he still will not be transferred to a state prison. The COVID-19 virus has caused inmate transfers between jails and prison to be suspended, according to a Sheriff’s Office spokesperson. It’s unclear when transfers will resume.