A 27-year-old transient was arraigned Wednesday on murder and premeditated attempted murder charges for allegedly killing 18-year-old Nia Wilson and injuring her sister at the MacArthur BART station in Oakland Sunday night.
John Lee Cowell said very little at his short three-minute hearing at an Oakland courtroom that was packed with Wilson’s family members, law enforcement officials and reporters and was ordered by Alameda County Superior Court Judge Scott Patton to return to court on Aug. 22 to enter a plea.
Wilson and Letifah Wilson, her 26-year-old sister, were stabbed at the MacArthur station at about 9:36 p.m. on Sunday, BART police said.
Video surveillance at the MacArthur station shows Cowell stabbing the two Wilson sisters and then running off, BART police Officer Russell Medeiros wrote in a probable cause statement.
Cowell discarded a backpack and his sweatshirt at the parking structure at the station and when officers recovered it they found several items with his name and date of birth, Medeiros said.
Nia Wilson’s mother Alicia Grayson and other family members wore placards over their necks with photos of Nia but left the courtroom without speaking to reporters.
Alameda County District Attorney Nancy O’Malley rarely attends hearings in cases her office prosecutes but came to Cowell’s hearing and said afterward that she’s met with Wilson’s family and “this is the worst time of their lives.”
O’Malley said, “This crime was ruthless and was very horrific and has been overwhelming for the family and our community.”
O’Malley said her office is prosecuting Cowell as a three-strikes defendant because he has two prior felony convictions in Contra Costa County, one for second-degree robbery on Oct. 12, 2016, and one for assault with a deadly weapon on May 25, 2012.
Cowell could face two terms of life in prison if he’s convicted of the charges against him and that sentence could be doubled to four life terms based on his three-strikes status, O’Malley said.
Cowell, who’s white, isn’t charged with a hate crime for allegedly killing Wilson, who was black, but O’Malley said she has a team of inspectors investigating the case and will be able to add hate crime allegations at a later time if there’s evidence to support them.
Cowell was arrested by BART police at the Pleasant Hill station on Monday night after they received a tip from a passenger and is being held at the Santa Rita Jail in Dublin without bail.
Cowell’s family said in a statement that he’s suffered from mental illness most of his life and has been diagnosed with bipolar disorder and schizophrenia.
O’Malley said she has assigned veteran prosecutor Butch Ford, who just finished one murder trial on Monday and is now starting another one, to prosecute Cowell’s case “from start to finish.”
An indication that court officials are giving priority to Cowell’s case is that Ford appeared at his brief hearing even though subordinates usually handle arraignments.
In addition, Alameda County Assistant Public Defender George Arroyo, another veteran trial lawyer, appeared in court on behalf of Cowell.
O’Malley said, “We won’t rush this case but we want to keep moving it along.”
-Jeff Shuttleworth, Bay City News