OAKLAND, Calif. (KRON) — The Nia Wilson murder trial has been anything but predictable. Almost every day of the trial has had an unexpected turn of events.
In opening statements, the defense attorney declared that her client was in fact the killer. Defendant John Cowell simultaneously admitted to the killing and asserted his innocence — saying he didn’t do anything “illegal” when he slit 18-year-old Wilson’s throat.
Cowell testified that it was his “prerogative” to stab Wilson and her sister, Letifa Wilson, on a BART train in the summer of 2018 because they were “aliens” and “gang members” who had kidnapped his grandmother and were planning to torture her.
Cowell was thrown out of the courtroom twice. Then he refused to attend his trial at all.
The unpredictable nature of the trial even included the final day of testimony Monday. A person reportedly attempted to assault Cowell’s public defender, Christina Moore, when she walking to the courthouse Monday morning.
According to the San Francisco Chronicle, Alameda County Deputy District Attorney Butch Ford talked with some of Wilson’s supporters in a courthouse hallway about the attempted assault. The trial continued for the day as normal, the incident was never mentioned in the courtroom in front of the jury, and Moore did not appear to be injured.
A spokesman for the public defender’s office declined to comment about the incident. KRON4’s Amy Larson observed Moore Monday afternoon leaving the courthouse with her assistant, walking down the street, and entering another building two blocks away. Moore was not being escorted by deputies for added security.
On Thursday, Ford told KRON4 that the incident unfolded when Moore took a photo of a group of protesters. “One took offense and told Ms. Moore as much. This same protester held up a sign close to Ms. Moore’s face and Ms. Moore claimed she was assaulted even though this was the extent of the incident,” Ford said.
Moore was the victim of at least one other attempted attack during a murder trial two years ago. Kejuan Hill was on trial for shooting his 16-year-old friend in an East Oakland “prank gone wrong” when one of the victim’s family members yelled out, rushed toward Moore, and was restrained by a bailiff before reaching her.
Since Day 1 of Nia Wilson murder trial, Moore has declined all media interviews. She unsuccessfully attempted to move the trial to a county outside of Alameda County because of heavy media coverage surrounding the BART train stabbing that created “pervasive prejudicial effects … and the extraordinary circumstances,” she wrote in court documents.
Cowell pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity. He is a schizophrenic and drug addict, according to testimony from psychiatrists who treated Cowell as he cycled in and out of hospitals and jails. He is charged with murder, attempted murder, and lying in wait.
Other surprising trial moments included when Cowell took the stand in his own defense. His behavior swung back and forth between speaking in a robotic, calm voice, to seething with defiance.
His testimony was halted twice: Once after a woman’s hair was accidentally pulled in the gallery, and again when Cowell unleashed vulgarities against the prosecutor.
Cowell has been a no-show for most of the trial, because after his second ejection from the courtroom, he refused to come back. Deputies, Judge Allan Hymer, and attorneys have been encouraging Cowell to return, but no one knows if he will come back for closing arguments March 9.
“Mr. Cowell has refused to complete his testimony at every opportunity,” Ford told KRON4.
Cowell was not the only person kicked out of the courtroom. News reporters were also rushed out when Letifa Wilson became ill while she was on the witness stand. Most of the homicide –including events before and after the attack — was recorded on BART surveillance cameras. Letifa Wilson was asked to watch the graphic, disturbing video as she testified with a victim advocate sitting next to her. She appeared to have a panic attack.
Letifa Wilson gathered enough emotional strength to finish her testimony later that day. She told KRON4, “I had to take a breather and think, what would Nia say to me? ‘Handle your business.’ And that’s what I feel like I did.”
Full coverage of the murder trial:
- Nia Wilson’s killer slated to be sentenced after COVID-19 closed Oakland courthouse
- Judge finds John Lee Cowell was sane when he killed Nia Wilson
- Jury enters Day 2 of deliberating over John Cowell’s sanity when he killed Nia Wilson
- John Cowell found guilty of 1st-degree murder of Nia Wilson
- Defense attorney tells Nia Wilson’s supporters: ‘This trial is not about you’