Sanity of Nia Wilson’s accused killer will be central pillar of trial’s outcome

Nia Wilson Murder Trial

OAKLAND (KRON) — Nia Wilson’s family said it adamantly believes that the person who followed three sisters off of a BART train in Oakland, before ruthlessly stabbing the youngest one to death, was not insane when he did it.

“He knew what he was doing,” Nia Wilson’s mother said.

The Alameda County District Attorney’s Office charged John Cowell with murdering 18-year-old Nia Wilson and attempting to murder her sister, 26-year-old Letifah Wilson.

Mental competency reports from psychiatrists have see-sawed over Cowell’s mental state. One psychiatrist’s findings caused a judge to suspend criminal proceedings last year, leaving the victim’s supporters wondering if justice will ever found in a courtroom.

Nia Wilson
Nia Wilson

But this week, a new report from a court-appointed psychiatrist was submitted, the judge concluded that Cowell is competent to stand trial, and jury selection began. The trial was further jump-started when Judge Allan Hymer denied the defense team’s motion to move the trial to another county, and Cowell asserted his right to a speedy trial.

The attack shocked the San Francisco Bay Area in the summer of 2018. According to investigators, a white man stabbed two young black women whom he had never met before.

Cowell pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity.

The trial will happen in two phases. First, a jury will hear evidence and decide on Cowell’s guilt — whether he committed the charges filed against him. In the second phase, the same jury will deliver a verdict over Cowell’s sanity.

If he is found guilty and sane, he could be sentenced to life in prison. The District Attorney’s Office removed the death penalty from the table. If the jury’s verdicts return as guilty and insane, Cowell may end up exactly where he was just before the summer of 2018: a state mental hospital.

Investigators have never released a motive, and the incident spurred discussions about hate crimes and mental illness.

The surviving Wilson sisters told KRON4 outside the courthouse Tuesday that Cowell, who is white, targeted young black women. Many Nia Wilson supporters believe the killing was a hate crime.

Cowell’s family asserts that he has schizophrenia.

In May of 2018, Cowell was released from a state mental hospital with nowhere to go, his family said. He had a long history of violence, and his own family was scared of him, according to neighbors.

Cowell’s lead defense attorney, Christina Moore, continues to file new court documents contending that Cowell is mentally ill and unable to understand what is happening.

In an affidavit filed by Moore last month, she wrote, “It is my belief that John Cowell is currently not competent to stand trial. I believe that as a result of a mental disorder he is unable to understand the nature of the criminal proceedings or to assist counsel in the conduct of a defense in a rational manner.”

Moore included a list of seven instances she recently experienced with Cowell that she provided as evidence. KRON4 obtained the affidavit Thursday. All but one instance is redacted from the list due to attorney-client privilege.

The one example not completely blacked out discusses Cowell’s Nov. 22, 2019 court appearance, when he asserted his right to a speedy trial moments after Moore had requested the opposite.

JOHN LEE COWELL
John Cowell at a BART station

Psychiatric medical reports detailing Cowell’s mental health are sealed.

His family gave KRON4 a prepared statement in 2018, stating, “John has been suffering from mental illness most of his life. He has been in & out of Jail & has not had the proper treatment. When he was released from the Atascadero State Mental Facility inside the Atascadero State Prison on 5/8/18, there was not a place for him to go with most of the mental institutions being shut down. Knowing that he was diagnosed with being bi-polar & schizophrenia, the system has failed in this instance. We had to get a restraining order at one time as well for our own protection. He was living on the streets without the proper treatment. This is in no way an excuse for this senseless and vicious attack.”

The grand jury’s indictment is still sealed, despite efforts from First Amendment groups to unseal it. But more information about Cowell and the homicide will be revealed when opening statements begin in February.

Previous coverage of the Nia Wilson case below:

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