First Amendment Coalition

Group Seeks to Unseal Transcripts for BART Stabbing Suspect

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A judge will hold a hearing on Friday on a motion by the First Amendment Coalition seeking to unseal the grand jury transcripts in the case of a man charged with murder for the fatal stabbing of 18-year-old Nia Wilson at the MacArthur BART station in Oakland last year.

John Lee Cowell, a 29-year-old transient man, is charged with murder and attempted murder for allegedly stabbing Wilson and her sister, 26-year-old Letifah Wilson, on the platform at the MacArthur station at 9:36 p.m. on July 22, 2018.

Cowell also is charged with a special circumstance allegation that he killed Wilson while lying in wait, a charge that could have resulted in the death penalty if he's convicted.

Cowell was indicted by an Alameda County grand jury in October 2018 but the panel's transcripts were sealed.

The First Amendment Coalition, a non-partisan group that advocates for government transparency, filed a motion to unseal the transcripts in October.

The group filed an updated motion earlier this month saying important information in the transcripts was already disclosed by prosecutors and defense attorneys at a Nov. 22 hearing at which Cowell pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity.

At the same hearing Cowell asked for a speedy trial and a Jan. 6 trial date was set for him.

The main issue at the Nov. 22 hearing was a motion filed by the defense asking that the charges against Cowell be dismissed but that motion was denied.

Among the information disclosed at that hearing was that Cowell had a backpack with him filled with at least seven prescriptions, including medication for schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.

Cowell also allegedly covered his head with a hood and put on glasses before attacking the Wilson sisters.

Attorneys for the First Amendment Coalition wrote that now that some of the contents of the transcripts have been revealed, "there is no basis to keep the grand jury transcripts and exhibits sealed in their entirety."

But Cowell's attorney Christina Moore wrote in a brief filed on Wednesday that the grand jury's transcripts should remain sealed to protect Cowell's rights under the Constitution.

Moore said, "There is a reasonable likelihood that making all or part of the transcripts public may prejudice Mr. Cowell's right to a fair and impartial trial."

Moore wrote, "It is indisputable that we already have a severely contaminated jury pool."

She said that's because 54.6 of respondents in a survey the defense conducted of 470 Alameda County residents said they believe Cowell is definitely guilty or probably guilty of murder.

Moore wrote, "Arguing a sealed motion in an open and public courtroom does not necessarily unseal the entire document upon which the argument relies."

Moore said, "The Nov. 22 oral argument in no way came close to covering the entirety of the grand jury proceeding."

Moore wrote, "As it stands, it will be next to impossible to empanel a jury that is willing to abide by the presumption of innocence, the burden of proof and the requirement that all elements of all offenses be proved beyond a reasonable doubt."

The First Amendment Coalition is represented on the motion by the Press Freedom and Transparency practice at the University of California at Irvine School of Law's Intellectual Property, Arts, and Technology Clinic.

The clinic founded its Press Freedom and Transparency practice in 2018.

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