OAKLAND, Calif. (KRON) — John Lee Cowell will be sentenced by an Alameda County judge next week for murdering Nia Wilson and attempting to kill her sister on a BART train.
The Oakland courthouse remains partially closed to the public because of COVID-19 and the June 5 sentencing hearing will likely be conducted remotely via a livestream, prosecutors told KRON4.
Cowell is facing life in prison without possibility of parole. The murder of an 18-year-old black woman by a white man set off marches through Oakland in the summer of 2018, and ignited debates over racial justice.
During the trial, Cowell testified that he believed Nia Wilson and her two sisters were not just innocent fellow BART riders. Cowell said he thought the three young black women were “aliens” and “gang members” who had kidnapped his beloved grandmother. He said he needed to rescue his grandmother, so he took a large knife out of his backpack, hid it under his clothing, and stabbed two of the sisters. Nia Wilson’s throat was slashed and she died on the train platform. Letifah Wilson was also stabbed in the neck and survived. Tashiya Wilson was not harmed.
Cowell pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity. The schizophrenic man had been released from Atascadero state mental hospital not long before the killing.
Ultimately, Judge Allan Hymer was not convinced by Cowell’s testimony nor public defender Christina Moore’s defense case. On March 16, the same day that the Oakland courthouse had to be shut down due to the rising COVID-19 pandemic, Hymer sent the jury home and took the final verdict into his own hands.
The jury had already returned a guilty verdict during the guilt phase of the trial. For the sanity verdict, Hymer ruled that Cowell was sane when he murdered Nia Wilson.
Nia Wilson came from a big family, and dozens of her supporters attended nearly every day of the trial. Tashiya Wilson and Letifah Wilson both testified against Cowell, re-living the trauma of seeing their little sister being attacked by a stranger.
When Cowell testified in his own defense, he talked about people wearing “fake skin,” aliens implanting a device in his ear, and hearing voices. He vented vulgarities at the prosecutor for being “disrespectful,” was escorted by deputies out of the courtroom twice for making outbursts, and celebrated with fist pumps when the judge mentioned the phrase “not guilty.”
Just before the jury began deliberations, lead prosecutor Butch Ford urged the jury to not be “fooled” by Cowell’s courtroom antics. “He wants to look crazy,” Ford said.
Moore also had emphatic words for the jury, at one point crying during her closing arguments. She urged them to find Cowell not guilty on all charges because he was suffering from paranoid delusions on the BART train and was mentally disconnected from reality when he acted out of a violent impulse.
“John was actively psychotic with hallucinations,” she said. Moore said the trial centered on one question: “What was in his mind on July 22, 2018?”
BART surveillance cameras provided crucial evidence that helped prosecutors prove Cowell’s mental state was sane. The cameras recorded Cowell and the Wilson sisters before, during, and after the attack, including an eerie 26-minute-long train ride when Cowell sat just a few feet away from Nia Wilson, and the last moments of Nia Wilson’s life as she bled to death.
Perhaps most importantly for the trial’s outcome, surveillance cameras recorded Cowell’s actions immediately after he attacked.
Under California law, a person can be found not guilty by reason of insanity if:
“The person, by reason of mental disease or defect was incapable of either:
- Knowing the nature of his or her act
- Understanding the nature of his or her act
- Distinguishing between right and wrong at the time of commission of the crime.”
Cowell blended into the crowd by running with confused and frightened passengers out of the BART station and past police officers, video played during the trial revealed. He then changed his clothes in a nearby parking garage, threw the knife over a construction yard fence, and caught a city bus. Ford said Cowell’s behavior showed he was not disconnected from the real world. Cowell was adapting to his environment with second-by-second decisions, and displayed behavior that was “goal-oriented, organized, methodical,” Ford said.
Prosecutors said Cowell didn’t behave as someone who believed that they were protecting a grandmother from aliens, gang members, and kidnappers: Hiding the murder weapon and changing his appearance showed that Cowell knew what he was doing was morally wrong.
“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 during opening statements.
In March, Moore said the court did not have legal authority to take its hasty action when judge Hymer took over the verdict. She told reporters that she planned to file an appeal. Ford disagreed, saying, “There absolutely is legal authority for the court to do it. Anyone who knows judge Hymer knows he would not doing anything without legal authority.”
Cowell is currently an inmate in the Santa Rita Jail in Dublin. He will likely have a chance to speak during his sentencing hearing.