Man who stabbed sisters on BART platform was sane at time, judge says

  • >> Jenny Gross, The New York Times
    Published: 2020-03-17 12:41:21 BdST

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Photo taken via Twitter.

A Bay Area man who stabbed two sisters on a commuter train platform in Oakland, California, two years ago, killing one and wounding the other, was sane at the time of the murder, a judge ruled Monday.

The man, John Lee Cowell, 29, was convicted of first-degree murder last week in the killing of Nia Wilson, 18, on a Bay Area Rapid Transit platform. He was also found guilty of the attempted murder of her sister Letifah Wilson, 27.

Three days into a jury’s deliberations on whether Cowell was criminally insane, Judge Allan Hymer intervened to reject his insanity defence.

The decision came a day after Gov. Gavin Newsom of California called for the isolation at home of all residents 65 years and older to limit the spread of the new coronavirus and to protect the people most at risk. Four of the 12 jurors, along with the judge, are over the age of 65. The judge stepped in to make the decision himself to prevent jurors from continuing to deliberate in person.

Jonathan Davis, a lawyer for the Wilson family, said the family was grateful that Hymer intervened.

“Cowell will be behind bars for the rest of his days,” Davis said. “Now the family is looking forward to making BART a safe and accountable system for everyone.”

Christina Moore, the public defender for Cowell, said they were “disappointed that the judge took the case away from the jurors of Alameda County after they had already been deliberating for days.”

The Alameda County prosecutor, Amilcar Ford, did not respond to a request for comment.

Cowell faces life in prison without the possibility of parole. He would have been sent to a psychiatric hospital if he had been found criminally insane.

The sentencing is scheduled for April 14.

Cowell, who pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity, has a history of violence and mental illness. He had two previous felony convictions — for robbery and assault with a deadly weapon — for which he served time in a state prison.

During the trial, Cowell had testified that he thought the sisters were part of a gang of aliens that kidnapped his grandmother, according to The Mercury News. The prosecutor asked Cowell, who is white, if he stabbed Nia and Letifah Wilson because they were black, and he responded by saying the sisters didn’t have a permit for standing over him, the newspaper reported.

In July 2018, Nia Wilson and her sisters Letifah and Tashiya were returning from a family event when they got on the same train as Cowell at the Concord BART station. After they stepped off the train, Cowell slashed Nia Wilson’s throat and stabbed Letifah. Tashiya Wilson was not injured.

The stabbings, which were caught on surveillance cameras, highlighted concerns about the safety of the BART system, one of the largest in the United States and a critical means of commuting for people living in different parts of the Bay Area.

Violent crimes on BART more than doubled in 2018 from 2014, in part because of an increase in fare evasion, The San Francisco Chronicle reported, citing a report released by the Alameda County civil grand jury.

© 2020 New York Times News Service