OAKLAND (CBS SF) — The murder trial of a transient man accused in the 2018 fatal stabbing of Nia Wilson at the MacArthur BART station got off to a troubling start Wednesday with an outburst by the defendant during opening statements.
John Lee Cowell, 29, was removed from the courtroom following his outburst during the prosecution’s opening remarks. The judge first admonished Cowell for speaking out to defend himself, telling Cowell to keep quiet and ultimately having Cowell removed when he continued.
He was initially allowed to return following the morning break, but Cowell was not in the courtroom during the afternoon session.
Cowell, 29, is charged with murder and attempted murder for allegedly stabbing the 18-year-old 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.
Nia’s mother Alicia Grayson was just one of a number family members and friends who were in the courtroom to be present during the first day of proceedings.
“I’m the best that I can be. I’m just trying to do this for my daughter” said Grayson. “I know she would want me to get through this and be a strong person and keep her name alive, so that’s my motivation.”
Jurors viewed graphic surveillance video of the murder during the prosecution’s opening statements which showed a man police identified as Cowell come up behind the victims and stab them in the back of the neck.
Grayson said watching the video was painful.
“I know that’s the last known image of her being happy-go-lucky Nia. And just to see that last image and to know that’s what he did to my baby girl — the youngest of my four children, the youngest of her dad’s six — that was terrible,” said Grayson.
Alameda County prosecutor Butch Ford admitted that Cowell, a 29-year-old transient man, has been diagnosed with schizophrenia but told jurors, “This was not a factor in the murder of Nia Wilson.”
Ford said Cowell followed Wilson and her two sisters when they got on a San Francisco-bound station in Concord that night and alleged that Cowell’s attack was premeditated and deliberated.
However, Ford didn’t say what Cowell’s motive was and why he thinks the stabbing was premeditated.
But defense attorney Christina Moore said Cowell “had no motive to kill other than he suffers from psychosis and delusion.”
Moore said the fatal stabbing of Nia Wilson was tragic but said it occurred because Cowell “is genuinely, severely and tragically impaired.”
Moore told jurors, “This is not a case of whodunit or who did it. This was a killing that was sadly predictable because of his severe mental illness.”
Moore said, “This wasn’t planned, it wasn’t deliberate, it was an act of rash impulse.”
One the Wilson family’s friends described the feeling of being in the courtroom with Cowell.
“It’s frustrating, especially when he comes out and he’s greeting the family, you know it’s really humiliating,” said family friend Crystal Clark. “And yeah, it gets really emotional, you know, especially when the family are having flashbacks of, you know, just receiving the news on the day. I just want to see justice. Justice for the family. Justice for Nia.”
“It’s hard to be here, because it’s just hard to know that she’s gone,” said Nia’s friend Danielle Brown.
Cowell 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.
Cowell’s trial began Wednesday because Alameda County Superior Court Judge Allan Hymer, who is presiding over the case, denied a second bid by Moore last Friday to move the case away from Alameda County because she doesn’t think he can get a fair trial locally.
Hymer denied Moore’s first change of venue motion on Jan. 14, saying he would try to ensure that a fair and impartial jury is selected for Cowell’s trial by the careful questioning of small groups of potential jurors instead of bringing in large panels.
Moore filed a second change of venue motion last week, saying that a high percentage of potential jurors in the case said they had been exposed to heavy news coverage about the case.
She also alleged that, “The media has poisoned the jury pool.”
“Based on social science, we know that subjects exposed to pretrial publicity are significantly more likely to judge the defendant guilty compared to subjects exposed to less or no pretrial publicity,” Moore said. “Venue should be changed because there is a reasonable likelihood that the accused (Cowell) will not receive a fair trial.”
But Hymer denied Moore’s motion for a second time and jury selection was completed on Tuesday.
The case against Cowell, who has a history of mental health problems, has moved slowly because Moore has raised questions about his mental competency to stand trial.
Alameda County Superior Court Judge James Cramer suspended the criminal proceedings against Cowell on Dec. 27, 2018, saying there was “substantial evidence” that he was mentally incompetent to stand trial.
But at a hearing last July 17, Cramer reinstated the criminal proceedings against Cowell, based in part on a report by psychiatrist Jason Roof of the University of California at Davis that found Cowell was competent to stand trial.
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