OAKLAND (CBS SF) — The judge in the trial of John Lee Cowell, a transient man charged with murder for the fatal stabbing of 18-year-old Nia Wilson at the MacArthur BART station in 2018, has denied a change of venue request from the defense in the case.
Assistant Public Defender Christina Moore, Cowell’s attorney, wrote in a motion she filed on Dec. 30 that she doesn’t think her client can get a fair trial locally because “prevalent and persistent news coverage has demonstrably prejudiced potential jurors of Alameda County.”
But Superior Court Judge Allan Hymer disagreed at a short hearing on Tuesday and ordered the trial continue with jury selection on Wednesday.
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.
He also is charged with a special circumstance allegation that he killed Wilson while lying in wait, a charge that would result in life in prison without parole or the death penalty if he’s convicted.
Moore said 55 percent of respondents in a survey the defense recently conducted of 470 Alameda County residents said they believe Cowell was definitely guilty or probably guilty of murder.
She said those numbers include people who indicated they have no familiarity with Cowell’s case, but 81.5 percent of the 315 people who said they were familiar with the allegations against him said they believed he definitely or probably was guilty of murder.
Moore said nearly 40 percent of those people said “they did not need any additional facts before deciding the issue of guilt” for Cowell.
Assistant District Attorney Micheal O’Connor wrote in a response filed last Friday that he believes, “The press coverage of the case is not highly prejudicial to the defendant (Cowell).”
O’Connor said that more than half of the news articles about Cowell’s case that Moore cited in her motion were written within two months after Wilson was killed and three-fourths of the articles were written in 2018.
O’Connor said, “The passage of time blunts the prejudicial impact of pretrial publicity.”
In addition, O’Connor argued that the courts have recognized that, “Alameda County is a large and populous county, making it very likely that jurors can be found who can refrain from prejudging the case.”
A panel of potential jurors were scheduled to be brought to Hymer’s courtroom on Wednesday morning.
On Wednesday afternoon, another judge, Superior Court Judge James Cramer, will hold a hearing to receive a new report on Cowell’s mental competency that’s being prepared by psychiatrist Jason Roof of the University of California at Davis.
Roof was scheduled to interview Cowell at the Santa Rita Jail in Dublin on Monday. Cowell’s trial could be suspended if Roof indicates in his report that he thinks Cowell is mentally incompetent.
In another twist in the case, Moore disclosed in a recent motion that Cowell recorded several rap videos in early 2017 under a rap moniker.
Moore said she’s seeking an order that the prosecution discloses to the court any of Cowell’s lyrics or videos they may seek to admit into evidence so the court can rule on any issues about their admissibility because she’s concerned that they may be unduly prejudicial.