Man sentenced to life in prison for killing 18-year-old Nia Wilson at Oakland BART station

Local News

The man convicted of stabbing an 18-year-old woman to death on a BART platform in Oakland was sentenced Friday to life in prison without possibility of parole, according to KTLA sister station KRON in San Francisco.

A unique sentencing hearing was conducted via a livestream during which the victim’s family spoke from a courthouse in Oakland, and the killer listened from a courthouse in Dublin.

John Lee Cowell was found guilty by a jury in March of killing Nia Wilson and attempting to kill her sister, Letifah Wilson. Cowell had pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity, but an Alameda County judge ruled the defendant was sane at the time of the brutal attack.

Cowell was diagnosed with schizophrenia, and during his trial, Cowell’s defense team said his mental illness caused him to have a psychotic break from reality. When Cowell testified in this own defense, he said he believed Nia Wilson and her two sisters were “gang members” and “aliens” who kidnapped his grandmother.

“There were three Black females working together. They were staring me down,” he told the jury. “It’s not illegal to said, save, or rescue a family member. I stabbed the females because they would not give my grandmother back.”

Lead prosecutor Butch Ford told the jury that Cowell was trying to fool them by pretending to be “crazy.”

BART surveillance cameras provided crucial evidence, showing Cowell before, during and after the homicide.

Cowell rode on the same BART train as the Wilson sisters for 26 minutes, then followed and stabbed them as they were attempting to get onto a second train. Cowell then fled from the BART station, hid the knife, changed his clothes and got on a bus.

Prosecutors used the surveillance video footage to prove that the homicide was premeditated and deliberate.

The Wilson family believes that Cowell, who is white, attacked the sisters because they are Black. The attack in the summer of 2018 sparked marches and calls for racial justice in Oakland.

Ford said “evil” was the motive behind the murder.

Nia Wilson came from a large, loving family. Some of her relatives were able to make victim impact statements during Friday’s sentencing hearing via a livestream.

Since his arrest, Cowell has been an inmate in the Santa Rita Jail in Alameda County. After his sentencing, he still will not be transferred to a state prison since the COVID-19 pandemic has caused inmate transfers between jails and prison to be suspended, according to a Sheriff’s Office spokesperson. It’s unclear when transfers will resume.

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