The mental health of John Lee Cowell was the main issue when attorneys presented their opening statements Wednesday in his trial on special circumstances murder charges for the fatal stabbing of 18-year-old Nia Wilson at an Oakland BART station in 2018.
Alameda County prosecutor Butch Ford admitted that Cowell, a 29-year-old transient man, has been diagnosed with schizophrenia but told jurors, "This was not a factor in the murder of Nia Wilson."
Ford said Cowell followed Wilson and her two sisters when they got on a San Francisco-bound station in Concord the night of July 22, 2018, and stabbed Nia and her sister Letifah Wilson when they got off the train at the MacArthur station at about 9:35 p.m. that night.
Ford alleged that Cowell's attack on Nia, who was killed, and Letifah, who was injured, was premeditated and deliberated. However, Ford didn't say what Cowell's motive was and why he thinks the stabbing was premeditated.
But defense attorney Christina Moore said Cowell "had no motive to kill other than he suffers from psychosis and delusion." Moore said the fatal stabbing of Nia Wilson was tragic but said it occurred because Cowell "is genuinely, severely and tragically impaired."
Moore told jurors, "This is not a case of whodunit or who did it. This was a killing that was sadly predictable because of his severe mental illness." Moore said, "This wasn't planned, it wasn't deliberate, it was an act of rash impulse."
Cowell is charged with murder for Nia Wilson's death and premeditated attempted murder for allegedly stabbing Letifah Wilson. He also is charged with a special circumstance allegation that he killed Wilson while lying in wait, a charge that would result in him being sentenced to life in prison without parole if he's convicted. Prosecutors aren't seeking the death penalty.
An air of racial tension hovers over the case because many black community leaders said after Nia Wilson was killed that prosecutors should consider charging Cowell, who's white, with a hate crime for allegedly killing Wilson, who was black.
But prosecutors never found any evidence that would support that enhancement.
In addition to a large number of Wilson's family members and friends, the opening statements were attended by Minister Keith Muhammad of the Nation of Islam mosque in Oakland and many of the mosque's members, as well as Cephus Johnson, the uncle of Oscar Grant, a young black man killed by white BART police Officer Johannes Mehserle at the Fruitvale BART station in Oakland on Jan. 1, 2009.
Security at Cowell's trial is unusually tight, Six bailiffs are guarding the courtroom, frisking everyone who enters and barring them from bringing their cellphones inside.
Alameda County Superior Court Judge Allan Hymer kicked Cowell out of the courtroom when he spoke during Ford's opening statement but allowed him to return after the morning break.