After convicting John Lee Cowell in the 2018 murder of Nia Wilson, an Alameda County jury had returned to deliberations in the "sanity phase" of the trial. But following coronavirus restrictions inhibiting several elderly jurors from continuing to deliberate, the judge in the case issued a directed verdict Monday declaring Cowell sane at the time of the murder.
The conviction arrived last Tuesday after just a few short hours of deliberations, and as KPIX reports. Cowell was found guilty of first degree murder in the killing of Wilson, and guilty of premeditated attempted murder in the stabbing of her sister Letifah Wilson. Furthermore they found him guilty of the special circumstance of lying in wait. The jury then returned to court to hear arguments on the sanity question last Wednesday, at which point Cowell's defense attorney Christina Moore presented the case for Cowell's poor mental health. Per KPIX, she said, "he was disconnected from reality and was unable to understand that his act was morally wrong. The act was senseless and unprovoked and speaks to what was going on his mind."
In some brief testimony in his own defense that the jury was told to disregard after an outburst, Cowell was notably erratic and exhibited symptoms of mental illness.
Prosecutor Butch Ford made the case that Cowell obviously knew right from wrong at the time of the murder because he not only misdirected police, he changed clothes and fled the scene. "If you believe what you’re doing is right, there’s no reason to flee," he told the jurors.
But after only being allowed to deliberate an hour on Wednesday and a full day on Thursday before the court recessed. And on Sunday Governor Newsom issued his sweeping order to keep senior citizens isolated for an indefinite period of time during this phase of the coronavirus pandemic — which prevents four of the twelve jurors from further participating in these deliberations, and the judge himself is over 65.
Against the objections of Moore, Judge Allan Hymer issued the directed verdict in lieu of the jury deciding on Cowell's sanity — and the Chronicle reports that Ford told the judge the jury was leaning 11 to 1 in the direction of sanity anyway.
Cowell's sentencing is now scheduled for April 14, and he faces a mandatory life sentence. Had he been found to be insane, he would have served his sentence in a mental institution instead of prison.
Per the Chronicle, Wilson's mother was "ecstatic" about the verdict, and Letifah Wilson, the sister who survived the stabbing, thanked the judge, jurors and Ford, and said, "I can finally rest knowing that my little sister is resting."