OAKLAND (CBS SF) – The man suspected of stabbing Nia Wilson to death on a BART platform in Oakland has been found mentally competent by a judge to stand trial Wednesday.

A jury date will be set for John Lee Cowell after he enters a plea on August 2.

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Wilson and her two sisters were at the MacArthur BART station in Oakland last July when a serial fare evader — Cowell — stabbed her in the neck, killing her.

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Alameda County Superior Court Judge James Cramer suspended the criminal proceedings against Cowell, 28, last Dec. 27, saying there was “substantial evidence” that he’s mentally incompetent to stand trial.

But at a hearing on Wednesday, Cramer reinstated the criminal proceedings against Cowell, based in part on a recent doctor’s report that found that Cowell is competent to stand trial.

One psychiatrist who examined Cowell earlier this year said he believed Cowell is incompetent to stand trial but another expert said he was unable to arrive at a conclusion about Cowell’s competency.

Cowell is charged with murder and attempted murder for allegedly stabbing Wilson and her sister, 26-year-old Letifah Wilson, as well as a special circumstance allegation that he killed Wilson while lying in wait, an allegation that could result in the death penalty or life in prison without parole if he’s convicted.

Cowell, who’s being held at Santa Rita Jail in Dublin without bail, is scheduled to return to court on Aug. 2 to enter a plea. A trial date will be set later.

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A trial on Cowell’s mental competency had been scheduled to begin on July 29 but that has now been canceled.

Cowell’s attorney Christina Moore said in a statement that Cramer’s ruling “means that today the court has found that John Cowell is mentally well enough for the case to proceed.”

But she said, “No ruling has been made about what John’s mental state was at the time of the alleged offense. That is a separate, distinct question.”

Moore said, “We all know that mental illness changes over time. How someone’s illness presents today is not necessarily how it will present tomorrow.”

On August 22, 2018, the family filed a public entity claim against BART. The lawsuit was filed after BART failed to respond to the family’s public entity claim.

In the lawsuit, “plaintiffs contend that — had BART taken adequate measures to prevent fare evaders from entering BART’s stations, platforms or trains — Nia Wilson would not have died.”

The family now wants BART to implement safety measures and staffing policies intended to reduce or prevent fare evasion and post a crime statistics notice with metrics regarding crime from the last four years at each BART station.


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