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Nia Wilson’s Murderer Faces Sentencing Friday

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John Lee Cowell, the man who murdered Nia Wilson and injured her sister on a BART station platform in 2018 will be sentenced Friday. He was originally scheduled to be sentenced in April, but court schedules have been delayed in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic.

The road to this point has been emotional and arduous for the family and friends of the slain 18-year-old, with the ability to try Cowell hanging on psychiatric evaluations throughout the process. 

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 

On March 10, Cowell was found guilty of first-degree murder in the fatal stabbing of Nia Wilson and attempted murder for the nonfatal stabbling of her sister, Letifah Wilson. The jury also found him guilty of a “lying in wait” special enhancement. 

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Cowell watched the sisters as they traveled on a BART train and waited until they made it to the platform at MacArthur station. He then attacked them both, stabbing Nia Wilson in the neck in what was described then by BART Police Chief Carlos Rojas as a “prison-style attack.” 

Cowell then ran from the scene of the murder and changed clothes in the parking lot before fleeing. Police located and arrested him without incident the following afternoon at the BART Pleasant Hill station. Cowell was at the time a transient with ties to Concord and was found to have suffered from mental health issues.

The determination of his sanity and ability to stand trial took up much of the court’s time since Nia’s death. Though he was cleared to stand trial in July 2019, he entered a formal insanity plea this past January.

Still, a jury of eight women and four men deliberated for less than four hours before they returned with guilty findings on all counts with the exception of one special enhancement in the attack on Letifah. 

At that point, the jury would have been asked to render a verdict on Cowell’s mental at the time of the murder, but Judge Allan Hymer surprised all by making determining himself that he was sane and could be further sentenced as such. The unprecedented move by Hymer was in part due to jury and court restrictions caused by the county’s health order in response to the virus.      

According to Butch Ford, prosecutor for Alameda County, Cowell faces a mandatory life sentence without the chance of parole. According to the Alameda County Superior Court docket, Cowell is scheduled for sentencing Friday at 9 a.m. 


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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.