OAKLAND (CBS SF) — Nia Wilson’s accused killer John Cowell was removed from his murder trial Thursday after yelling out vulgarities when prosecutors began to show a surveillance video of the fatal attack to jurors.
It was just the latest twist to the highly emotional, and at time bizarre, week-long trial in the random attack of Nia Wilson and her sister, Letifah, on the platform at the MacArthur BART platform in Oakland on July 22, 2018. Nia Wilson died of her wounds while Letifah was critically injured but survived. She was in the courtroom Thursday.
Initially, Cowell refused to come into the courtroom and retake the stand for his second day of testimony. When he did enter with sheriff’s deputies at his side, he refused to answer questions and shouted expletives at prosecutors. Finally, Alameda County Superior Court Judge Allan Hymer ordered him removed.
“He kept saying, ‘Last time you said I’m not found guilty. So what do you want me to say now?’ Like, ‘Last time you said I’m not guilty.’ And he just started getting hyper, hyper and hyper,” said Jocelyn Gama, a friend of Nia Wilson who was in the courtroom.
Wilson’s family and friends say Cowell was putting on a performance, almost worthy of an Oscar nomination.
“We hope the jury sees what it is, too. It’s a show. It’s an act. He’s very smart. He’s using big words,” said a friend of the Wilson family who gave her name as “Beatrice X.”
“I believe he’s been coached. It’s just an act to me. He’s showing signs of manipulation,” said Letifah Wilson.
The defense attorney put Cowell on the stand as a way to show the jury his mental state. It remains to be seen how jurors will react to outbursts like the one on display Thursday.
The defense also called Cowell’s aunt to the stand, who testified about his history of mental illness prior to the murder. Prosecutors called the aunt’s credibility into questions, arguing that she focused more on Cowell’s problems with drugs than his mental issues when she was interviewed by investigators after the deadly stabbing.
The prosecutor is trying to prove the suspect knew what he was doing and was not crazy when he attacked Nia and Letifah Wilson.
“I’m here to get justice for my sister and for myself and my other little sister Tashaya as well,” said Letifah.
Wednesday was an off day for the Lincoln birthday holiday and gave jurors, Wilson family members and attorneys time to regroup after Cowell’s testimony on Tuesday.
In a series of ramblings from the stand, Cowell told jurors he hears voices from alien technology implanted in his ear and that he attacked the Wilson sisters because he thought they were aliens.
Cowell’s attorney, Christina Moore, admitted to jurors in her opening statement that Cowell randomly stabbed the Wilson sisters.
But she also claimed “he is genuinely, severely and tragically impaired” and not mentally competent for trial. A court-appointed psychologist disagreed and the case went to trial.
Cowell referred to people wearing “fake skin” and “skin suits” during Tuesday’s testimony, insisting that the Wilson sisters were aliens that were threatening him. He also said the sisters had kidnapped his grandmother and were threatening to hurt her.
Cowell said that the sisters were standing over him on the BART train and staring him down and that attacking them was the only way to save his grandmother.
He testified he had schizophrenia, an antisocial personality disorder and several drug problems. Cowell additionally gave conflicting information to his own lawyer during the testimony regarding the medications he may or may not be taking and his prior hospitalization.
Members of the Wilson family did not know what to make of Cowell’s outlandish claims.
“I don’t know what he is talking about and what ‘Alien Nation’ planet he got that idea from. It’s absurd” said family member Denise Black. “We are not aliens! If I’m an alien, you’re one too!”
When the prosecution began questioning Cowell, the attorney immediately questioned his truthfulness, saying Cowell used his mental illness diagnosis as a way to get places to sleep at night. The attorney also inferred that Cowell had made no references to aliens or fake skin to doctors when discussing his prior history of mental illness.
The bizarre display came in the fourth day of the trial. Cowell was relatively polite and subdued until the last hour of court Tuesday afternoon. At one point, the judge stopped everything and told the defendant to count to 10 to calm things down.
The defendant threw a temper tantrum of sorts, calling the prosecutor rude and disrespectful. The prosecution then accused Cowell of hoping his behavior would make the jury think he was crazy, saying the defendant was “putting on a show.”
“It’s very difficult. Especially for the girls and hearing him not owning up to what he does,” said Black.
Cowell, who had to be forcibly removed from the courtroom last week because of an outburst, was not in court Monday.
Da Lin, Anne Makovec and Juliette Goodrich contributed to this report.