An Alameda County Superior Court judge today suspended criminal proceedings against a transient charged with murder for the fatal stabbing of 18-year-old Nia Wilson at the MacArthur BART station in July, saying he finds there is “substantial evidence” the man is mentally incompetent to stand trial.
After making that ruling, Judge James Cramer said he will appoint two psychiatrists to examine John Lee Cowell, 28, and submit reports on their findings about Cowell’s competence when he returns to court on Feb. 13.
Cramer made his ruling after defense attorney Christina Moore said that in her most recent attempt to talk to Cowell about his case, he suffered from “delusions outside of what is normal” and said things “that don’t conform to reality.”
Moore said Cowell was treated for mental illness at two state mental institutions between 2012 and earlier this year and has been placed on psychiatric holds 22 times, including three times in the month before he allegedly stabbed Wilson and her sister Letifah Wilson, 26, at the MacArthur station at 9:36 p.m. on July 22.
Alameda County prosecutor L.D. Louis, who specializes in mental health cases, told Cramer that the defense should be required to provide more specific information on Cowell’s mental health before a ruling was made on his mental competency to stand trial.
“It would be helpful if there were a factual basis” for a ruling on Cowell’s competency, Louis said.
But Cramer said the fact that Cowell was in a state mental institution for five months at the beginning of this year and was placed on psychiatric holds three times before the stabbing incident convinces him that Cowell isn’t mentally competent at this time because he can’t rationally assist his lawyer.
Wilson’s father Ansar Muhammad said outside of court that Cramer’s ruling that Cowell is incompetent to stand trial at this time “is something we anticipated.”
But Muhammad said he thinks Cowell “is pretty competent” because after he allegedly stabbed Wilson and her sister, he had the wherewithal to flee from the scene and change his clothes to try to avoid being arrested.
Cowell is charged with murder and attempted murder for allegedly stabbing Wilson and her sister as well as a special circumstance allegation that he killed Wilson while lying in wait, an allegation that could result in the death penalty or life in prison without parole if he’s convicted.
Prosecutors haven’t yet decided if they will seek the death penalty for Cowell and that decision is now on hold until his mental competency is determined.
If the two psychiatrists agree that Cowell is incompetent to stand trial, he would be placed in a state mental institution to get treatment aimed at restoring his competence.
If that happens, he could still stand trial at a later date.
Muhammad said, “I want justice for my daughters” but said the question of whether Cowell should get the death penalty “is up to the creator.”
Wilson’s mother Alicia Grayson adamantly said she thinks Cowell should get the death penalty.
-Jeff Shuttleworth, Bay City News
Editor’s note: The headline on this story has been corrected to indicate that the judge has ordered a psychological evaluation of John Lee Cowell but has not yet found him incompetent to stand trial.