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California

Mental competency hearing ordered for man accused in fatal stabbing at Oakland BART station

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John Lee Cowell is accused of murdering 18-year-old Nia Wilson at an Oakland BART station.
(Alameda County Sheriff’s Office)

A judge on Thursday suspended criminal proceedings for a man accused of stabbing two sisters at an Oakland train station, killing one of them, so doctors can determine whether he’s mentally fit to stand trial.

Prosecutors alleged that John Lee Cowell, 28, stabbed Nia Wilson and her 26-year-old sister in the neck at a Bay Area Rapid Transit Station in Oakland in July. Wilson died at the scene. She was 18.

Cowell’s attorney said she doubts her client understands the charges against him.

“I don’t believe he’s able to rationally assist me in his defense, which is the legal standard,” public defender Christina Marie Moore said. “He’s incredibly paranoid and delusional right now. I’ve been unable to redirect him.”

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Two court-appointed psychiatrists will evaluate Cowell’s mental state, with an initial report expected within 45 days, Moore said. If doctors disagree, a third evaluation will be ordered.

The slaying occurred five months ago when Cowell came up behind Wilson and stabbed her twice in rapid succession before attacking her sister in the same “prison-yard type of attack,” BART Police Chief Carlos Rojas told reporters at the time.

“It basically happened at the snap of the fingers, at the drop of the pin — that quick,” Rojas said.

Cowell and the two women boarded the train at the Concord station, according to a statement released by BART. He did not interact with either of them until the attack, which took place at the MacArthur station, according to Alicia Trost, a spokeswoman for BART.

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Authorities later found Cowell aboard an Antioch-bound train at the Pleasant Hill Station, where he was taken into custody.

Moore said she could not reveal much about her conversations with Cowell, citing attorney-client privilege, but she said he is not grounded in reality.

When the judge asked about a history of mental illness, Moore cited 22 occasions in which Cowell was involuntarily committed to a mental hospital. Three of those were in the months before his arrest, she said.

In 2016, Cowell was sentenced to two years in prison for second-degree robbery, according to California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation spokeswoman Vicky Waters. A judge credited him 159 days for time served while awaiting sentencing, and he was paroled in May, she said.

Moore said Cowell spent the last five months of his sentence in a hospital for inmates who are so severely mentally ill, they can’t be housed in a regular prison. He was released from the hospital not because he was found mentally fit, but because “he had served his time,” the lawyer said.

Moore said doctors are evaluating Cowell’s current mental state, not his sanity at the time of the attack, and said she is not presenting an insanity defense.

”This doesn’t mean there’s not going to be a murder trial,” she said.

alejandra.reyesvelarde@latimes.com

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Twitter: @r_valejandra


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