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Oakland: Nia Wilson’s killer loses appeal of murder verdict, life sentence

SAN FRANCISCO — John Lee Cowell, who fatally stabbed Nia Wilson after following the 18-year-old and her two sisters on a BART train from Concord to Oakland, has lost the appeal of his first-degree murder conviction.

The First Appellate District of California rejected the 32-year-old man’s appeal in a 3-0 decision issued in December.

Cowell was convicted in 2020 of killing Wilson and attempting to kill her sister by slashing them both in the neck on July 22, 2018. Jurors also found him guilty of the special circumstance of lying in wait, leading to his sentence to life without the possibility of parole.

Cowell’s trial hinged on his mental state at the time of the murder; his attorney argued that he has a schizoaffective disorder and was not guilty by reason of insanity.

Most of Cowell’s appeal was similarly centered on the insanity defense, as well as Cowell’s bizarre behavior during trial. In the 86-page decision, appellate justices ruled that Cowell’s refusal to come to court or obey courtroom decorum didn’t affect his defense, that Cowell’s refusal to finish cross-examination didn’t justify a new trial and that Alameda County Superior Court Judge Allan Hymer was justified in restricting defense expert testimony.

The panel of judges also denied arguments of prosecutorial misconduct. On appeal, Cowell’s attorneys argued Deputy District Attorney Butch Ford, who prosecuted the case, tried to sneak into the court record a racial slur Cowell allegedly used against a Black woman hours before slaying Wilson and stabbing her sister, arguably demonstrating that Cowell was out to pick a fight with a Black person that night.

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Cowell’s attorney claimed Ford did so by producing a “corrected transcript” of the remark at a late minute. During Cowell’s testimony, he recalled “being threatened by three Black females that were together,” and that he feared they were going to kidnap his grandmother, leading many to believe that he targeted Wilson and her sisters because they were Black.

The appellate court justices doubted that the 10-week murder trial hinged on “a single word and a single question” and noted that “the evidence that defendant committed the stabbings was overwhelming.”

Cowell’s mental illness was well-established: he was placed in a brief mental health hold just days before the murder, according to court records. But under state law, prosecutors simply need to prove that a person knew his or her actions were wrong in order to prove they were legally sane during the commission of a crime, meaning a defendant can have a completely delusional motive and still end up being sent to prison.

During trial, Ford argued that Cowell was exaggerating his mental illness in order to stave off a prison sentence, and pointed to alleged statements Cowell made about wanting to “look crazy” and go to a mental health hospital “so they can release me.”

In Cowell’s case, video evidence showed that he appeared fixated on Wilson and her sisters from the time they got on a westbound BART train in Concord, and witness testimony established that he stabbed Wilson seemingly out of the blue. Afterwards, he took key steps to get away with the crime, like disposing of the knife, fleeing the area, and changing his clothes, all of which proved he knew he’d done something wrong, prosecutors argued.

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Cowell is currently serving his life without parole sentence at California State Prison, Sacramento.

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