Oakland

Judge Says There’s Evidence BART Stabbing Suspect Is Malingering

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A judge said on Monday that there are indications that a transient man is malingering to avoid standing trial on a murder charge for the fatal stabbing of 18-year-old Nia Wilson at the MacArthur BART station in Oakland last year.

But Alameda County Superior Court Judge James Cramer said he needs more time to study legal issues surrounding the mental competency of John Lee Cowell, 29, and won't issue a ruling on the matter until Tuesday.

Cramer has three options: ordering Cowell to stand trial on Jan. 6 as scheduled, finding that he's mentally incompetent to stand trial and suspending the criminal proceedings against him, or appointing another psychiatrist to examine him to determine his current competency.

Cowell 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 result in him getting sentenced to life in prison without parole or the death penalty if he's convicted.

Cramer suspended the criminal proceedings against Cowell last Dec. 27, saying there was "substantial evidence" that he was mentally incompetent to stand trial.

But at a hearing on July 17, Cramer reinstated the criminal proceedings against Cowell, based in part on a new doctor's report that found that Cowell was competent to stand trial.

At a hearing on Nov. 22, Cowell pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity and a Jan. 6 trial date was set for him because, against the advice of his attorney Christina Moore, he asked for a speedy trial.

At a hearing last Friday at which Cramer denied a request by the First Amendment Coalition to unseal the grand jury's transcripts in the case, Moore said she thinks Cowell is now incompetent to stand trial because, "There are additional facts that are very concerning to me."

Moore didn't disclose those facts because she wanted to protect Cowell's privacy, but Cramer said on Monday that some of the relevant facts can be made public, including the fact that Cowell has refused to meet with two doctors who were appointed last month to evaluate his current mental state.

Cramer said Cowell also is refusing to meet with Moore. The judge said he realizes that Cowell has a long history of mental illness and has made "nonsensical and delusional statements."

But he said all three psychiatrists who examined Cowell earlier this year found that he was "malingering."

Cramer said, "In my mind, he's just not cooperating and there's no new evidence of a substantial change in circumstances" that would justify delaying his trial.

Cramer said, "There's an unwillingness to cooperate versus an inability to do so based on a mental deficit."

Alameda County prosecutor Butch Ford said one of the psychiatrists who examined Cowell reported that he refused to take his medication because he wanted to be found incompetent to stand trial.

But Moore said she believes there is "a new and different presentation of symptoms" in Cowell that make him incompetent to stand trial.

Moore also said it's possible that Cowell is still suffering from mental illness in addition to malingering.

She said, "It's not one or the other, it can be both."

Moore said, "This is an incredibly serious case and it could be an appellate error to go forward" without getting another doctor's opinion about Cowell's mental state.

"Why wouldn't you just pause a moment to get one more opinion?" she asked.

Wilson's mother and six other family members attended Cowell's hearing on Monday but didn't comment afterward.

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