John Lee Cowell, the man convicted in the 2018 stabbing death of Nia Wilson, has been sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole, an Alameda County judge has decided.
Wilson, an 18-year-old Black woman, was waiting to change trains with her sisters Letifah and Tashiya at a BART subway station in Oakland, California, on a Sunday night in July 2018 when she was approached and stabbed to death by Cowell. Nia was pronounced dead at the scene, and her sister Letifah was also stabbed in the neck but survived the attack. Letifah said the sisters were heading home from a family gathering when they were attacked.
Cowell, who is white, was arrested the next day following a manhunt. He appeared at his virtual sentencing on Thursday but did not make a statement. Letifah and Tashiya were among the five family members that spoke at the hearing.
“I can’t forgive you for what you have done,” Letifah told Cowell. “You are inhuman. … I can’t forgive you for that. … I have to forgive you for the peace of my family.
Tashiya shared that she wanted Cowell to face the death penalty, but said if he was executed he “wouldn’t suffer as we do.” Prosecutors did not pursue the death penalty but requested Cowell be sentenced to life without parole.
The jury found Cowell guilty in March after just two hours of deliberation. They also found Cowell guilty of premeditated murder and of special circumstances, including lying in wait and hiding his intentions, and for taking Wilson by surprise to kill her.
Wilson had big plans for her future and was considering a career with the military or in musical production.
Cowell had multiple run-ins with the law prior to his involvement in Wilson’s death. By the age of 18 his rap sheet already included drug offenses and an assault charge. By 24 he had been convicted on battery and more drug charges. In 2016 he was caught shoplifting at a Target, and later he pulled a toy handgun on a loss prevention officer in a separate incident that same year. Cowell’s family has said he suffered from mental health struggles, including bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. His defense attorneys claimed that he was insane, but Alameda County Superior Court Judge Allan Hymer ruled that Cowell was indeed sane at the time of the attack.
Prosecutor Butch Ford suggested the attack may have been racially motivated, and he is not alone in this belief. After Wilson’s death, protests broke out in Oakland and around the state of California over the police department’s handling of the case. Demonstrators cited the fact that it took police a full day to arrest Wilson’s killer, and hashtags like #SayHerName and #JusticeForNia trended on social media. However, BART Police Chief Carlos Rojas said at the time that they had not found any reason to believe the attack was racially motivated and hadn’t connected Cowell to any white supremacist group.
Cowell will be transferred and temporarily held in San Quentin State Prison until officials decide which state prison he will serve his time in. Wilson’s family said Cowell did not show any signs of remorse during the hearing and spoke only when asking about filing an appeal.