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Suspect Heads to Trial for Stabbing Death of Nia Wilson, 18, After Judge Finds Him Mentally Competent

A trial is set to begin for a parolee charged in the stabbing death of 18-year-old Nia Wilson, and the attempted slaying of her sister in a California train station in 2018.

Opening statements in the trial against John Lee Cowell are scheduled to begin Wednesday, following a delay to determine if he was mentally competent to stand trial, the Associated Press reports.

Nia Wilson
John Lee Cowell (left) is charged with first-degree murder after fatally stabbing Nia Wilson, 18, in the neck on a BART train platform in July. (Images courtesy of AP)

Wilson and her sister, 26-year-old Letifah Wilson, were changing trains at the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) station in Oakland when Cowell, 29, allegedly attacked them with a knife. Authorities say Cowell, a known transient with a history of violence, had recently been paroled at the time of the July 2018 incident.

Nia Wilson bled out on the platform after being slashed in the throat. Her sister was also stabbed in the neck, but survived.

The tragic incident gained national attention and prompted several new safety measures by Bay Area Rapid Transit officials following a string of violent, deadly attacks in San Francisco-area subways.

“There is a serious and endemic public safety problem on BART and just about everybody who rides BART knows that,” said Robert Arns, a lawyer for the Wilson family.

In 2019, the family filed a wrongful death suit against BART, arguing that Nia’s death was preventable and that Cowell should have never been able to get past the turnstiles. Attorneys argued the transit agency should’ve known Cowell posed a threat to passengers, as two riders had complained about his behavior just days before the slaying. Cowell pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity.

“What the family wants to do with this lawsuit, one of the main things, is make BART safe for everyone,” Arns added. “Nia, in her short life at age 18, she wanted to save lives. Her death isn’t some horrific anomaly that occurred in two seconds that nobody could do anything about.”

Attorneys for Cowell say he suffers from mental illness, as well as delusions and severe paranoia. He was released from a maximum security facility for mentally ill convicts just months before his stabbing attack on Wilson and her sibling.

In December, an Alameda County Superior judge ruled Cowell was fit to stand trial. CBS San Francisco reported that Judge James Cramer ordered a round of psychological testing for Cowell, who he said refused to cooperate with doctors and was “malingering” in an effort to avoid trial.

The California man is charged with first-degree murder and attempted murder in the attack on Nia and her sister. Prosecutors also hit Cowell with a special circumstance allegation that he killed Nia, 18, while “lying in wait.”

Authorities also are investigating whether the attack was racially motivated; Cowell is white, and Wilson and her sister are Black. Wilson’s family told KRON4 her death was a hate crime by a man who targeted young Black women. Cowell has not been charged with a hate crime.

If convicted, Cowell could face life behind bars.

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