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Suspect Makes Formal Insanity Plea in Nia Wilson Murder Case

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John Lee Cowell doesn’t deny killing Nia Wilson, 18, and injuring her sister Letifah, but neither does he take responsibility for his actions, claiming he is not guilty by reason of insanity.

His defense attorney previously entered the plea on his behalf, but Cowell, 29, showed up to a hearing Wednesday to personally and formally make that assertion.

He said:

“I was insane at the time.”

Alameda County Superior Court Judge James Cramer made sure Cowell was aware of what he said and what the implications of that claim are. Cramer explained that after the criminal phase of trial, the defense would have to then prove beyond a doubt that Cowell was in fact insane at the time of Nia Wilson’s murder.

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

Cramer ruled Dec. 24 that the murder trial could proceed Jan. 6, although he ordered an additional psychiatric evaluation that could derail the process if it is found that Cowell is mentally incompetent. Previous evaluations have contradicted each other.

In another hearing a week prior, Cramer suggested the suspect may be “malingering,” or exaggerating, his mental health issues in an effort to delay trial that could result in life without parole or the death penalty if he is found guilty.

Cowell is being charged with murder with a special circumstance of lying in wait for the fatal stabbing of Nia Wilson on the BART MacArthur station platform July 22, 2018. He is also being charged with attempted murder for injuries he inflicted on Nia’s sister, Letifah, in the same incident. 

Although the latest evaluation could impact the process going forward, a trial judge has been appointed and jury selection is scheduled to begin Jan. 15, which is the same day Cramer expects the latest competency report.

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


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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.