The murder trial of 29-year-old John Lee Cowell, the mentally unstable transient man accused of killing an 18-year-old woman in an Oakland BART station two years ago, got off to an inauspicious start Wednesday morning.
Cowell had to be removed from the Oakland courtroom just ten minutes into the trial and two minutes into the prosecution's opening statement due to an outburst. As KRON 4 reports, Cowell was arguing about a detail the prosecution had stated about whether he or Nia Wilson and her sister arrived at the MacArthur BART station first on that July day in 2018. Judge Allan Hymer instructed Cowell to be quiet, and he continued talking over the prosecutor, so he was ejected from the courtroom and only allowed to return when his attorney began her opening statement.
The prosecution then played surveillance video that captured the murder and the non-fatal stabbing of Wilson's sister, Letifah, which no one outside of law enforcement and the attorneys has seen up to now. The video reportedly shows Cowell lunge at Nia Wilson and stab her twice in the neck with a large knife. Quickly, he stabbed Letifah second, also in the neck. Letifah then can be seen holding her sister's neck to stop her bleeding. Paramedics arrive and begin chest compressions, but Nia Wilson bled out within minutes. Wilson's family could reportedly be heard sobbing in the courtroom as the video played for the jury.
Separate video footage shows Cowell in the moments after the crime, changing clothes, and pointing police officers to the scene.
The trial is "not a case of whodunit," as defense attorney Christina Moore told jurors during her opening statement. “He did this,” she said. But, as the Chronicle reports, she went on to urge jurors "to continue to listen." She laid out what will be the basis for her defense, which is that Cowell suffers from "extreme delusion" and "extreme paranoia," as she has said — diagnoses which prompted her to seek, more than once in the last year and a half, a ruling that her client was mentally unfit to stand trial. Now all that's left is an insanity defense.
Moore will also be seek to debunk the public perception that the murder was racially motivated — something that the media promoted in the days after the murder despite there being no evidence of it being a hate crime. The reports led to multiple vigils and marches in Oakland in the days following Wilson's murder.
Moore has tried twice in the last month to get the judge to grant a change of venue in the case, because she says the jury pool in Alameda County is "poisoned" after the case's heavy media coverage, as KPIX reports.
Previously, Alameda County Superior Court Judge James Cramer had suspending legal proceedings against Cowell in late 2018, citing his mental incompetency. Since then, Cowell's mental fitness has been reviewed by multiple psychiatrists, most recently in late 2019, with at least one expert failing to make a conclusion.