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Convicted Killer John Lee Cowell Sentenced To Life In Fatal BART Station Stabbing Of Nia Wilson

OAKLAND (CBS SF) -- An Alameda County Superior Court judge sentenced John Lee Cowell life in prison without parole Thursday for the fatal stabbing of Nia Wilson as she stepped off a train at the MacArthur BART station in July 2018.

Cowell attended the sentencing but chose not to make a statement to court.

Five relatives spoke to the court before the sentencing - including Letifah Wilson, who was also stabbed by Cowell - saying they, too are serving a life sentence. The jury had also found Cowell guilty of premeditated attempted murder for stabbing Letifah.

"I can't forgive you for what you have done," she told Cowell in her victim impact statement. "You are inhuman...I can't forgive you for that... I have to forgive you for the peace of my family."

Through tears, Tashiya Wilson, a third sister who was on the BART with her siblings but was not injured in the attack, emotionally proclaimed to Cowell -- "You took our baby."

"I did want death penalty for him but he wouldn't suffer enough as we do" said Tashiya Wilson. "We suffer through this literally every day that we wake up, go to sleep at night, (and) we hardly could."

After days of testimony, the eight-woman, four-man jury deliberated for about two hours before returning the guilty verdicts back in March. They also found Cowell guilty of special circumstance allegations -- lying in wait for concealing his intent and then killing her by taking her by surprise.

Cowell was absent from most of his trial, either because of outbursts or because he's refused to come to court. Prosecutors had chosen not to pursue the death penalty, asking the court for a life sentence without parole.

When Cowell's defense claimed he was insane, Alameda County Superior Court Judge Allan Hymer decided to issue a directed verdict in light of the COVID-19 outbreak, ruling their client was sane at the time of the attack and would serve his sentence in a state prison.

The Wilson sisters boarded a San Francisco-bound train at the Concord BART station the night of July 22, 2018, after attending a family gathering for someone who had been killed. Cowell got on the same train at the Concord station.

Prosecutor Butch Ford alleged that Cowell didn't attack the Wilson sisters on the train because he wouldn't have had a chance to flee quickly, but instead waited to attack them when they changed trains at the MacArthur station.

"He attacks them when they're most vulnerable. He knew what he was doing," Ford told the jurors in his closing statement.

The prosecutor also said there may have been a racial motive for the attack, noting that Cowell is white and the Wilson sisters are black.

Ford said Cowell claimed during his testimony that he had been punched in the face by a black woman the week before the stabbing and said Cowell made a racial remark to a black woman and tried to fight her when they were both on a bus about an hour after the stabbing.

In the victim impact statements, the family said they too are serving a life sentence. Tashiya Wilson said she's afraid to leave the house, she has nightmares, and life for her will never be the same.

"July used to be my favor month cause I knew it was my birthday month. And I knew every year that Nia was with me on my birthday. And I'm glad she was with me on my 21st.  But it's a tragedy that I lost her three days after my birthday.  And I can't even get excited about it anymore," said Tashiya.

Because of the pandemic, Judge Hymer conducted the sentencing hearing through a video conference.  Different parties joining the conference from different rooms in the Alameda County courthouse in Oakland.  The Wilson family said Cowell showed no remorse and no emotions.  He only talked briefly when he asked the judge about filing his appeal.

Cowell stabbed Nia and Letifah at an Oakland Bart station on July 22, 2018.  During the trial, He claimed the sisters were aliens.  Cowell pleaded guilty by reason of insanity.  But the judge ruled he was sane when he killed Nia.

"Even though it's been two years, it's still fresh to me.  It still seems like yesterday and it's hard to even talk about it sometimes without getting choked up," said Letifah.

"There's peace that's he's not going to walk free anymore," said Tashiya.

The prosecutor said Cowell will be transferred to San Quentin State Prison.  It's a standard process.  He'll stay there for three months while authorities decide which state prison will be his permanent home.

Da Lin contributed to this report.


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