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Mental Compentency Of BART Fatal Stabbing Suspect Still Unresolved

OAKLAND (CBS SF) -- The mental competency of a transient who's charged with murder for the fatal stabbing of 18-year-old Nia Wilson at the MacArthur BART station in Oakland last July remained unresolved at a hearing on that matter on Friday.

Alameda County Superior Court James Cramer suspended the legal proceedings against John Lee Cowell, 28, on Dec. 27 for the stabbing death at the MacArthur station at about 9:36 p.m. on July 22, saying there is "substantial evidence" that he's mentally incompetent to stand trial.

Nia Wilson
Nia Wilson (Family photo)

Cramer appointed two psychiatrists to examine Cowell and submit reports to the court on their findings about his mental competence.

Dr. Marlin Griffith said in a report submitted to the court on Feb. 13 that he believes Cowell is incompetent to stand trial.

But Dr. John Chamberlin said in a report submitted on Friday that he was unable to arrive at a conclusion about Cowell's competency.

Cowell's attorney Christina Moore said Griffith's finding is sufficient basis for Cowell to be placed in a state mental institution to get treatment aimed at restoring his competence. If that happens he could still stand trial at a later date.

But Alameda County prosecutor L.D. Louis said she is unwilling to agree to that so Cramer put the matter over until next Friday, when he will decide whether to appoint a third psychiatrist to examine Cowell or to go ahead and rule on his competency.

Moore said at the Dec. 27 hearing that Cowell was treated for mental illness at two state mental institutions between 2012 and earlier in 2018 and has been placed on 5150 psychiatric holds 22 times, including three times in the month before he allegedly stabbed Wilson and her sister, Letifah Wilson, 26.

Cowell is charged with murder and attempted murder for allegedly stabbing Wilson and her sister as well as a special circumstance allegation that he 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.

Prosecutors haven't yet decided if they will seek the death penalty for Cowell and that decision is now on hold until his mental competency is determined.

After Wilson was killed many black community leaders said the Alameda County District Attorney's Office should consider charging Cowell, who's white, with a hate crime for allegedly killing Wilson, who was black, but prosecutors haven't found evidence that would support that enhancement.

After today's hearing, Wilson's father Ansar Muhammad said he still thinks the fatal stabbing was racially motivated.

"If you're crazy you don't pick and choose your victim based on race," said Muhammad. "The only problem John Lee Cowell has is he's a coward and a racist."

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