OAKLAND, Calif. (AP) — San Francisco area man with a history of violence and mental illness is guilty of the random stabbing death of an 18-year-old woman at a commuter train platform two years ago, a killing with racial undertones that prompted rallies and vigils.
An Alameda County jury announced Tuesday it found John Lee Cowell, 29, guilty of murdering Nia Wilson at the MacArthur BART station in Oakland as she was returning home from a family gathering with her two sisters. Jurors also found Cowell guilty of attempted murder in the stabbing of Wilson’s sister, who survived severe injuries to her neck.
The jury also convicted Cowell of the special circumstances count of lying in wait. The jury reached the verdict hours after starting deliberations.
Cowell will face a second trial to determine his sanity. If found insane, he would be sent to a psychiatric hospital.
The stabbing death of the young and vibrant African American woman in July 2018 horrified bystanders and added to BART’s reputation as unsafe. The Bay Area Rapid Transit system connects San Francisco to cities in the south and east bays, including Oakland and Berkeley. Train officials sought to re-assure the public with measures intended to improve safety.
Family and friends have said the women were targeted because of their race but prosecutors declined to charge him with a hate crime. That doesn’t mean race didn’t come up. Cowell admitted at trial that he was punched in the face by a black woman about a week before the train stabbing and the prosecutor queried him about trying to pick a fight with another black woman after the stabbing.
Cowell followed the sisters from the platform onto a train for a 30-minute ride to another station, then stabbed them when they were boarding another train, Deputy District Attorney Butch Ford told the jury in opening statements Feb. 5.
Videos showed Cowell tailing the women and removing a knife hidden in his pants in the attack that killed Wilson and wounded Letifah Wilson, 26. Video also showed Cowell trying to blend in with passengers after the assault, misdirecting officers and changing clothes he kept in a backpack that was tossed, along with the knife, at a nearby construction zone.
“He took that little girl’s life,” Deputy District Attorney Butch Ford told jurors in closing arguments Monday, the East Bay Times reporte d.
Cowell has pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity. His public defender, Christina Moore, argued that he stabbed the sisters in a “rash act” stemming from his mental illness and that a person can be organized yet schizophrenic.
“This case is and always has been what was in John’s mind,” said Moore in her closing.
Cowell was thrown out of court twice for disruptive behavior. He testified he thought the sisters were aliens and part of a gang that kidnapped his grandmother.
The trial, which took up much of February, had been delayed while authorities sought to determine Cowell’s mental competence through a series of psychiatric evaluations. In December, a judge ruled Cowell was fit to stand trial after noting that he was refusing to cooperate with doctors appointed to evaluate him.
Cowell was released from a maximum security facility for mentally ill convicts less than three months before the attack.