OAKLAND (CBS SF) — Only 17 days before a transient man is scheduled to stand trial on a murder charge for the fatal stabbing of 18-year-old Nia Wilson at the MacArthur BART station in Oakland last year, his attorney said Friday that she doesn’t think he’s mentally competent to stand trial.
Defense lawyer Christina Moore said she’s basing her request on a recommendation by a psychiatrist who was recently appointed to evaluate the current mental state of John Lee Cowell, 29, and recommended that mental competency proceedings be initiated.
Alameda County Superior Court Judge James Cramer said he didn’t want to make a rushed ruling on Moore’s request today but said he will do so at a hearing on Monday morning after he’s had time to review all the records and legal issues in the case.
Cowell is charged with murder and attempted murder for allegedly stabbing Wilson and her sister, 26-year-old Letifah Wilson, on the platform at the MacArthur station at 9:36 p.m. on July 22, 2018.
Cowell also is charged with a special circumstance allegation that he killed Wilson while lying in wait, a charge that could have resulted in the death penalty if he’s convicted. Cramer suspended the criminal proceedings last Dec. 27, saying there was “substantial evidence” that he was mentally incompetent to stand trial.
But at a hearing on July 17 Cramer reinstated the criminal proceedings against Cowell, based in part on a new doctor’s report that found that Cowell was 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
At a hearing on Nov. 22 Cowell pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity and a Jan. 6 trial date was set for him because, against Moore’s advice, he asked for a speedy trial.
Because of Cowell’s not guilty by reason of insanity plea, two more doctors were appointed to evaluate his current mental state.Moore didn’t explain why she now thinks that Cowell is now incompetent to stand trial, citing privacy concerns, but she said, “There are additional facts that are very concerning to me.”
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The discussion about Cowell’s current mental state came at the end of a hearing at which Cramer also ruled against a motion by the First Amendment Coalition seeking to unseal the grand jury transcripts in Cowell’s case.
Cowell was indicted by an Alameda County grand jury in October 2018 but shortly after that Cramer ordered that the panel’s transcripts be sealed.
The First Amendment Coalition, a non-partisan group based in San Rafael that advocates for government transparency, argued in its motion that the transcripts should be unsealed because important information in them was already disclosed by prosecutors and defense attorneys at the Nov. 22 hearing, at which Judge Kevin Murphy denied a defense motion to dismiss the charges against Cowell.
The group also argued that Cramer’s sealing order didn’t meet the requirements of the First Amendment because if failed to make a finding that sealing was necessary because there was a reasonable likelihood that disclosing the information in the transcripts would jeopardize Cowell’s right to have a fair trial or that 12 unbiased jurors could not be found.
Moore argued against unsealing the transcripts, saying that Cowell’s right to have a fair trial already is at risk because 55 percent of respondents in a survey the defense conducted of 470 Alameda County residents said they believe Cowell is definitely guilty or probably guilty of murder.
Cramer said he agrees that the transcripts should remain sealed, saying the extent of the news coverage the case has received is “astounding.” Cramer said the high percentage of people in the survey who said Cowell is definitely or probably guilty of murder is “shockingly high” and indicates it will be difficult to select a fair jury for him.
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