A prosecutor and a defense attorney clashed on Monday in their closing arguments in the trial of John Lee Cowell on a murder charge for the fatal stabbing of 18-year-old Nia Wilson at the MacArthur BART station in Oakland in 2018.
But Alameda County prosecutor Butch Ford and defense lawyer Christina Moore agreed on two important things: that Cowell is in fact the person who attacked Wilson and her sister Letifah Wilson at the MacArthur station at about 9:35 p.m. on July 22, 2018, and that the key issue in his trial was his state of mind at the time.
Ford told jurors that Cowell, a 29-year-old transient man, should be convicted of first-degree murder and the special circumstance of lying in wait because he believes Cowell knew what he was doing at the time and premeditated the attack.
He also said Cowell should be convicted of attempted murder for stabbing Letifah Wilson.
But Moore said Cowell has been diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia and said his mind “was completely divorced from reality” at the time.
Ford said Nia Wilson, Letifah Wilson and a third sister boarded a San Francisco-bound train at the Concord BART station the night of July 22, 2018, after attending a family gathering for someone who had been killed.
Ford said Cowell got on the same train at the Concord station and watched the Wilson sisters until they got off the train at the MacArthur station, where they planned to transfer to a train that would take them to the Fruitvale station in Oakland.
Ford acknowledged that Cowell has suffered from mental health problems but said the reason he thinks Cowell knew what he was doing is that after he got off the train he concealed his knife from other people on the MacArthur station until he pulled it out and stabbed Nia and Letifah Wilson from behind.
The prosecutor also said Cowell was sane enough to plan an escape route from the station and quickly changed his clothes and discarded his backpack.
Ford alleged that Moore coached Cowell to testify that the reason he attacked Wilson and her sister is that he thought they were aliens.
Ford said he doesn’t think that’s credible because when BART police interviewed Cowell the day after the attack he never said anything about aliens.
The prosecutor asked:
“If Cowell thought what he was doing was right, why hide it every step of the way? If he was having an acute psychotic episode, why hide your knife and change your clothes?”
Ford alleged that Cowell is “putting on a show” by pretending he was mentally ill at the time of the attack and told jurors:
“He’s trying to fool all of you.”
But Moore accused Ford of trying to manipulate jurors’ emotions by playing the video of the attack multiple times instead of focusing on Cowell’s mental state at the time.
“This case is about what was in John Cowell’s mind, not what occurred.”
Ford argued that a psychologist found that Cowell was goal-oriented when he committed the attack, but Moore said other psychologists testified that it’s possible to be both goal-oriented and psychotic and delusional at the same time.
The tension in the courtroom, which was packed with Wilson’s family members and friends, shot up when Moore asked jurors if they could believe Ford’s allegation that she was a co-conspirator with Cowell to magnify his mental illness and some members of the audience said “yes.”
Moore asked Alameda County Superior Court Judge Allan Hymer to admonish the audience and turned to the spectators and said:
“This isn’t about you.”
Moore further angered some audience members later in her argument when she said that Cowell didn’t intend to kill Letifah Wilson, saying:
“Although the assault was serious, it only required two stitches.”
Ford is presenting his rebuttal closing argument Tuesday and then jurors will begin deliberating.
Cowell has pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity to the charges against him.
If Cowell is convicted, he will have a separate sanity phase in which the same jury will decide if he was legally sane at the time of the attack.