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Judge Rules BART Stabbing Suspect Competent To Stand Trial

OAKLAND (CBS SF) -- The case of a transient man charged with murder for the fatal stabbing of 18-year-old Nia Wilson at the MacArthur BART station in Oakland in 2018 remained on track Wednesday when a judge ruled that he's mentally competent to stand trial.

Nia Wilson
Nia Wilson. (Family photo via Facebook)

John Lee Cowell, 29, 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 would result in life in prison without parole or the death penalty if he's convicted.

But the case against Cowell, who has a history of mental health problems, has moved slowly because his attorney Christina Moore has raised questions about his mental competency to stand trial.


Alameda County Superior Court Judge James Cramer suspended the criminal proceedings against Cowell on Dec. 27, 2018, 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, based in part on a report by psychiatrist Jason Roof of University of California at Davis that found Cowell was competent to stand trial.

John Lee Cowell
John Lee Cowell (Alameda County Sheriff's Office)

One psychiatrist who had examined Cowell earlier in 2019 said he believed Cowell was incompetent to stand trial but another expert said he was unable to arrive at a conclusion about Cowell's competency.

Moore said at a hearing on Dec. 20 that she had new concerns about Cowell's competency so Cramer appointed Roof to examine Cowell again on Monday at Santa Rita Jail in Dublin, where he is being held without bail.

At a short hearing Wednesday afternoon, Cramer said that based on Roof's new report and Cowell's demeanor and responsiveness when he entered a not guilty by reason of insanity plea last week, he believes the defense hasn't met its burden of showing that there's substantial evidence of a changed circumstance that indicates that Cowell is now incompetent.

"The criminal proceedings are not suspended," Cramer said at the hearing, which was attended by about 30 of Wilson's family members, friends and supporters, including Minister Keith Muhammad of the Nation of Islam mosque in Oakland.

Cramer's ruling means that jury selection for Cowell's trial will continue Thursday in the courtroom of another judge, Superior Court Judge Allan Hymer, who's an expert on mental health legal issues.

The first panel of potential jurors in the case was brought into Hymer's courtroom on Wednesday morning to fill out questionnaires.

Cowell's case is moving along quickly now because Cowell recently invoked his right to a speedy trial.

On Tuesday, Hymer denied a defense motion asking that Cowell's trial be moved out of Alameda County because of all the publicity his case has received.

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