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Suspect in Nia Wilson’s Murder Cleared to Stand Trial

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It was nearly a year ago when Nia Wilson, 18, was murdered and her sister Lahtifa Wilson, 26, was injured in a “prison-style attack” on the MacArthur BART platform. An Alameda County Superior Court judge ruled Wednesday that the suspect in Wilson’s murder is mentally competent enough to stand trial.

John Lee Cowell, the man accused of the brutal and unprovoked stabbings, has been in custody at Santa Rita Jail in Dublin since he was caught July 23, 2018, one day after Wilson’s death.

Judge James Cramer suspended criminal proceedings last December in response to a psychiatric evaluation that concluded Cowell was mentally incompetent. That decision fanned anger about a system that tends to handle white suspects, especially those accused of murder, with kid gloves while dehumanizing black suspects. The “mentally ill” versus “thug” tropes have long been a point of contention in the justice system and Cowell’s case seemed to exasperate those frustrations.

Cramer’s reinstatement of Cowell’s criminal proceedings came on the heels of a recent doctor’s report that found the suspect to now be competent. He is scheduled to enter a plea Aug. 2 and a trial date will be set at a later time. The Wednesday ruling brings a glimmer of hope to those who have been waiting for justice in Wilson’s tragic death.

As we reported last year, Cowell was arrested without incident at the Pleasant Hill BART station after a one-day manhunt. The news of his capture came as a vigil and march in Wilson’s honor was well underway in Oakland. As people chanted to “say her name,” understandable anger festered knowing that another black person was needlessly killed and another white suspect was being given respect the black community seldom experiences from law enforcement.

Protesters raise the right fists in solidarity and resistance at the end of march to honor Nia Wilson in Oakland, Calif. July 23, 2018. Photo by Nik Wojcik

At the time of his arrest, Cowell, considered a transient, already had an extensive criminal record at the age of 27. His previous charges included assault, battery, drug offenses and obstruction of a peace officer. His family issued a statement of condolence for the victims’ family and claimed Cowell had recently been released from Atascadero and still experienced bipolar disorder and schizophrenia.

At the time of Nia Wilson’s death at the young age of 18, she had already endured tragedy with the loss of her boyfriend in an accidental drowning. But Wilson was lauded as a survivor with big plans ahead and as someone always ready to help others. She considered joining the military or becoming an EMT if her dreams of a music career didn’t pan out. The day of the vigil was filled with warm remembrance and the portrayal of a beautiful soul who would forever be sorely missed. Wilson’s father, Ansar Muhammad said at the time:

“My daughter was everything to me.”

“She was so beautiful, so inspirational, had dreams. I’m supposed to be planning her graduation, not her funeral.”

A degree of tension is to be expected as Cowell faces trial and details of Wilson’s death are thrust back into public awareness. Amid what will certainly be an emotional period to come, we can only hope people struggling with frustration will heed the advice Daryle Allums, Wilson’s godfather, gave during a powerful speech at her vigil. He encouraged the group of mourners and other supporters to “walk the walk,” to “stand up and fight back” with organization and activism and not with violence.

But above all else, it is most important we remember Nia Wilson.

“Say her name!”

Man holds sign during July 23, 2018 vigil that reads “Nia Wilson,” the name of the 18-year-old killed the night before, MacArthur BART station, Oakland, Calif. Photo by Nik Wojcik

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Nik Wojcik - East Bay Editor

Nik Wojcik - East Bay Editor

Journalist, editor, student, single mom to a pack of wolves, foodie, music lover, resident smart ass, and champion of vulgarity and human kindness.