A day after John Lee Cowell was convicted of first-degree murder for the fatal stabbing of Nia Wilson at an Oakland BART station in Oakland in 2018, the attorneys in his trial argued on Wednesday afternoon about whether he was legally sane at the time.
The sanity phase of the trial for Cowell, a 29-year-old transient man with a history of mental illness, was unusually short because defense attorney Christina Moore didn’t present any witnesses on his behalf.
Moore sought to present the testimony of a mental health expert, but Alameda County Superior Court Judge Allan Hymer, who is presiding over Cowell’s case, ruled at a hearing outside of the presence of jurors on Wednesday morning that the expert couldn’t testify.
In the afternoon session in front of jurors, Moore and Alameda County prosecutor Butch Ford proceeded directly to present their closing arguments to the same jurors who delivered their guilty verdicts against Cowell late Tuesday afternoon after deliberating for only a few hours.
Cowell was convicted of first-degree murder for fatally stabbing Nia Wilson, 18, at the MacArthur station in Oakland at about 9:35 p.m. on July 22, 2018, and of premeditated attempted murder for stabbing Wilson’s sister Letifah Wilson, who was injured but survived the attack.
In addition, jurors found true a special circumstance allegation that Cowell murdered Nia Wilson by lying in wait for concealing his intent and then killing her by taking her by surprise.
Cowell, who pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity, could face life in prison without the possibility of parole. But if jurors rule that he was insane at the time of the attack, he would serve his sentence in a state mental hospital instead of prison.
Hymer told jurors Wednesday that the defense has the burden of proof in the sanity phase in trying to establish that Cowell has a mental disorder or defect and that he was incapable of understanding the nature of his act and that it was morally or legally wrong.
Moore said the record in the guilt phase of Cowell’s trial shows that:
“(H)e was disconnected from reality and was unable to understand that his act was morally wrong.”
“The act was senseless and unprovoked and speaks to what was going on his mind.”
The defense lawyer said Cowell has a history of mental disorders, suffers from schizophrenia and wasn’t taking his medications at the time of the stabbing because he was hearing voices telling him that his pills were poisonous.
Moore said Cowell is “paranoid in nature” and because of that he has refused to meet with doctors who could help him better demonstrate the seriousness of his mental illness.
Ford admitted that Cowell suffers from mental health issues but argued that the defense failed to prove that Cowell didn’t understand that the stabbing was morally and legally wrong.
Ford said Cowell’s actions after the stabbing indicate he knew what he had done was wrong because he misdirected police who responded to the scene, discarded his knife and change his clothes.
“If you believe what you’re doing is right, there’s no reason to flee.”
Cowell was absent from most of his trial, either because of outbursts or because he’s refused to come to court, but he was present during the sanity phase arguments.
Jurors began deliberating late Wednesday afternoon.