‘Evil… has a name’: Trial in fatal BART stabbing of Nia Wilson begins
OAKLAND — The courtroom erupted in gasps and sobs on Wednesday during the opening statements of the murder trial of John Lee Cowell, as family and friends of Nia Wilson watched the horrific video showing their loved ones last moments of life.
Cowell is seen raising his arm with a knife in his hand and quickly stabbing Nia Wilson and her older sister as they entered a BART train on July 22, 2018 around 9:36 p.m. that night. Nia Wilson would die within minutes, her sister survived, and a third sister frantically called their father on the phone.
The three sisters briefly entered the train, but could be seen immediately getting out as 18-year-old Nia Wilson held her neck with her hand, her older sister Letifah Wilson trying to help her, as blood gushed out and could be seen splattering on the MacArthur station platform. Letifah Wilson was also stabbed.
Cowell was long gone by the time people rushed over, one even handing Letifah Wilson what appeared to be a blanket or towel, as Nia Wilson stood and leaned against the railing, holding her neck. She soon slumped over onto the ground, but bled out before paramedics could even get to her.
There’s no question that Cowell killed Nia Wilson, the young woman wearing a white shirt, her hair in pigtails, as she and her two sisters headed home on BART from a family party in Concord that night.
But Cowell’s defense attorney, Christina Moore, however, states that it was not a premeditated act, but a “rash impulse” as a result of his diagnosed mental illness, namely schizophrenia.
Alameda County Deputy District Attorney Butch Ford instead called Cowell “evil” and sinister, showing what he believes to be evidence that Cowell not only knew what he was doing, but was plotting the attack.
“The evil in this case has a name, and that name is John Lee Cowell” Ford said.
Cowell is accused of the murder of Nia Wilson and the attempted murder of Letifah Wilson. He’s also charged with the special circumstance of lying in wait, which could make him eligible for life in prison without the possibility of parole if convicted.
Ford showed the jury BART video surveillance of the three sisters, Nia the youngest, Letifah the oldest, and middle sister Tashiya Wilson get into the BART station at Concord. Cowell is seen too, leaning against a barrier as the three women ride the escalator onto the upper platform. Then, the three are seen inside the train itself along with Cowell, who sits nearby. For about 25 minutes Cowell’s body language in the video suggests he’s watching the three women, Ford said.
When they all get off at the MacArthur station, Cowell, then wearing sunglasses, can be seen pulling a knife from his pants, which pierces a hole in his pant leg. He pulls out the knife from the bottom of his pant leg, then holds it in his hand as he makes his way to the three women. He attacks Nia and Letifah from behind, quickly stabbing at least three times, before leaving.
“They have no idea he’s coming,” Ford said.
Cowell then puts the knife back in his pocket, and gets away. He eventually breaks out into a run.
It’s the first time the video of the fatal attack has been publicly shown; or details of the crime have emerged.
In police body camera footage also shown of BART police who were already downstairs at the station, people can be seen running by indicating to police about what just happened on the platform. Cowell is also seen running by, also pointing with his thumb to show police where the stabbing has just occurred. Ford said Cowell was trying to blend in.
He later disposes of the knife at a nearby construction site, his backpack with identifying information inside, and changes out of his pants and hooded sweatshirt.
About an hour after the murder, Cowell is seen in more video footage getting onto an AC Transit bus, asking the driver calmly for a ride because his ankle is messed up.
Ford said Cowell was coherent and responsive during all this, even when he is arrested by BART police the next day at the Pleasant Hill BART station. He’s calm and even chuckles with officers as they handcuff him, telling them he’d rather stay on the platform so he could go home.
But Moore said her client struggled and had an inability to discern reality. Cowell has pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity.
“He did this nonsensical killing that was sadly predictable because of his mental illness,” Moore said.
She told the jury that just because you don’t “see” mental illness, it doesn’t mean it’s not there.
During the first several minutes of Ford’s opening Wednesday, Cowell began speaking out loud, stating something about how he what the prosecutor said wasn’t accurate.
“But you just said I was there first,” he said.
Judge Allan Hymer warned Cowell, and told him if he wouldn’t stop talking he would remove him from the courtroom. Cowell did not stop speaking, and was removed for the rest of the prosecution’s opening statements from the courtroom.
Alicia Grayson, Nia Wilson’s mother, indicated to reporters during the lunch break that she believed Cowell had his outburst on purpose, so he wouldn’t have to watch the video of himself attacking her daughters.
The trial resumes Wednesday afternoon with more opening statements from the defense.
Check back for updates.