Trial judge selected in BART stabbing case, but defense seeking change of venue

The fate of the case against a man charged with murder for the fatal stabbing of 18-year-old Nia Wilson at the MacArthur BART station in Oakland in 2018 remained up in the air on Monday even though a trial judge was selected and a jury selection date was scheduled.

John Lee Cowell, a 29-year-old transient, is charged with murder and attempted murder for allegedly stabbing Wilson and her sister, 26-year-old Letifah Wilson, on the platform at the MacArthur station at 9:36 p.m. on July 22, 2018. Cowell also is charged with a special circumstance allegation that he killed Wilson while lying in wait, a charge that would result in life in prison without parole or the death penalty if he’s convicted.

Cowell’s trial on Monday was assigned to veteran Alameda County Superior Court Judge Allan Hymer, who was appointed to the bench in 1997 by former Gov. Pete Wilson. Hymer said the first panel of potential jurors for Cowell’s trial will be brought to court on Jan. 15.

But Hymer also scheduled a hearing for Jan. 13 on a motion filed by Cowell’s attorney Christina Moore asking that his trial be moved out of Alameda County because she doesn’t think he can get a fair trial locally due to the pervasive publicity his case has received.

In her motion, Moore said 55 percent of respondents in a survey the defense recently conducted of 470 Alameda County residents said they believe Cowell is definitely guilty or probably guilty of murder. She said those numbers include people who indicated they have no familiarity with Cowell’s case, but she said 81.5 percent of the 315 people who said they’re familiar with the allegations against him said they believe he definitely or probably is guilty of murder.

Moore also said at a hearing on Dec. 20 that she thinks there are new indications that Cowell is mentally incompetent to stand trial. At a hearing on Dec. 24, Judge James Cramer said Cowell’s trial can proceed but ordered that an additional evaluation be done by psychiatrist Jason Roof of the University of California at Davis.

Roof’s report will be discussed at a hearing in Cramer’s courtroom on Jan. 15, the same day that the first jury panel for Cowell’s trial will be brought to Hymer’s courtroom in the same building. Cowell’s trial could be suspended if Roof indicates in his report that he thinks Cowell is mentally incompetent.

Cramer previously suspended the criminal proceedings against Cowell on Dec. 27, 2018, saying there was “substantial evidence” that he was mentally incompetent to stand trial. But at a hearing on July 17, Cramer reinstated the criminal proceedings against Cowell, based in part on a new doctor’s report that found that Cowell was competent to stand trial.

Alameda County prosecutor Butch Ford said after the short hearing for Cowell on Monday that the reason the jury panel is being brought to court before all the issues in the case have been resolved is that Cowell invoked his right to a speedy trial, which means that his case must move forward without delays.

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