Convicted killer John Lee Cowell, who was found guilty in March of first-degree murder in the July 2018 stabbing of Nia Wilson at the MacArthur BART station, was sentenced today to life in prison.
The sentencing hearing was a strange one, as KRON4 reports, with Wilson's family offering statements from a courtroom in Oakland, and Cowell listening from Santa Rita Jail in Dublin, where he has been an inmate for two years now. Following the sentencing, due to a moratorium on inmate transfers due to COVID-19, Cowell will remain at Santa Rita for the foreseeable future, rather than being transferred to a state prison.
Judge Allan Hymer took an unusual step in mid-March, following the jury's conviction and just as the pandemic was shutting down court proceedings around the country, issuing a directed verdict after jury deliberations were suspended in the "sanity phase" of the trial. Hymer ruled that Cowell was sane at the time of the crime for the purposes of sentencing, negating the need for continued deliberation — both Hymer and four of the jurors would not have been able to participate in continued court proceedings, being over the age of 65, due to the existing pandemic lockdown orders by the governor at the time.
Cowell's defense attorney, Christina Moore, tried unsuccessfully to argue that Cowell's schizophrenia was the primary driver behind the crime — and Cowell himself testified that he believed Wilson and her two sisters were aliens who were responsible for kidnapping his grandmother, who had recently died.
"I stabbed both of the females in the crew, because I believed they would not give my grandmother back," Cowell said on the stand.
Cowell was seen on BART surveillance video pulling out a knife and fatally stabbing Wilson, in addition to wounding her sister, and his culpability in the killing was never in question.
Prosecutor Butch Ford argued that Cowell's actions after the killing, including his effort to elude police, suggested that he was fully aware of his crime. "He knew what he did was wrong, and he did everything he could to get away with it," Ford said in court prior to the sanity-phase deliberations.
The killing of Wilson sparked nationwide outrage after her family, and subsequently celebrities on social media, publicized their belief that the murder was racially motivated, and spurred marches for racial justice in Oakland during the summer of 2018. Wilson's family continues to say that Cowell targeted the Wilson sisters because they are Black.