Attorney for BART Stabbing Suspect Says He's Mentally Incompetent

The defense lawyer for a transient charged with murder for the fatal stabbing of 18-year-old Nia Wilson at the MacArthur BART station in July told a judge Thursday that she thinks her client is mentally incompetent to stand trial.

Defense attorney Christina Moore said she doesn't think John Lee Cowell, 28, is mentally able to assist her in preparing for a potential trial for him on murder and attempted murder charges for the stabbing death of Wilson and the stabbing of Letifah Wilson, her 26-year-old sister, at the MacArthur station at 9:36 p.m. on July 22.

Family members and friends of Nia Wilson who packed the courtroom for Cowell's brief hearing audibly groaned when Moore said she believes he's incompetent and five deputies who guarded the courtroom told them to be quiet.

Alameda County Superior Court Judge James Cramer put the matter over until Dec. 27 so he can review a brief by Assistant District Attorney L.D. Louis, who specializes in mental health cases, about the legal standards that must be met before a defendant is declared mentally incompetent to stand trial.

Cramer said that at the hearing next week he will decide whether Cowell is mentally incompetent to stand trial and whether to suspend the criminal proceedings against him.

He said if he makes such a ruling, he would then appoint two psychiatrists to examine Cowell and then submit their findings to the court.

Moore said outside of court that Cowell is "extremely delusional and paranoid."

She said if Cramer determines that Cowell is incompetent to stand trial, Cowell would eventually be placed in a state mental institution to get treatment aimed at restoring his competence and could still stand trial at a later date.

Wilson's mother Alicia Grayson said she doesn't think Cowell is mentally incompetent.

"All white people say they're crazy. He wasn't crazy that night" when the stabbings occurred, Grayson said. "There isn't anything wrong with him."

Cowell is white and Nia Wilson was black.

A month after the stabbing, prosecutors added a special circumstance allegation that Cowell killed Wilson while lying in wait, an allegation that could result in the death penalty or life in prison without parole if he's convicted.

It had been expected that prosecutors might announce Thursday whether they will seek the death penalty for Cowell, but that decision has been put on hold until his mental competency is determined.

Cowell had been scheduled to enter a plea Thursday but that matter has also been placed on hold.

Moore said after a previous hearing in the case that Cowell was released from the Atascadero State Hospital, an all-male, maximum-security facility that houses mentally ill convicts who have been committed to psychiatric facilities, only 75 days before Wilson was killed.

If Wilson hadn't been killed, she would have graduated from Dewey Academy in Oakland on Wednesday.

Oakland Unified School District spokesman John Sasaki said that at the graduation ceremony on Wednesday, Dewey's principal presented Wilson's parents with a special plaque to mark the occasion and a chair was left empty for her with her cap and gown draped over it.

The ceremony also included a special video and speeches to honor her and her parents accepted her diploma.

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