Prosecutors won’t seek death penalty in trial of Nia Wilson’s alleged killer

Alameda County prosecutors announced Monday they will not seek the death penalty in the murder trial of John Lee Cowell, who is accused of fatally slashing 18-year-old Nia Wilson last summer on an Oakland BART station platform.
Monday’s announcement comes after months of hearings over Cowell’s mental competency to assist in his own defense. A judge ruled in July that the case could move forward after a doctor found Cowell fit to stand trial. Cowell is scheduled to officially enter a plea Oct. 11, and the trial date is scheduled for Jan. 6.
Wilson’s mother, Alicia Grayson, told The Chronicle she was aware of the prosecution’s decision prior to Monday’s court hearing and was somewhat disappointed. “Of course, in a perfect world I would want the death penalty,” she said. “But I know it would have been kind of hard to seek that, with his mental state in question.”
Wilson’s family has been a constant fixture in the courtroom since Cowell’s arrest, often donning T-shirts depicting Wilson’s name or likeness. The family filed a wrongful death lawsuit against BART in April.
Authorities blasted out Cowell’s photo across social media, and authorities located him the following day on another BART train after a tip from a fellow passenger.
The brazen attack roiled the East Bay over possible racial implications of the crime, and the following day hundreds of people took to the streets to protest violence against black women. Cowell is white, and the Wilson sisters are black.
Police have not found evidence that race was a factor in the slaying, and prosecutors have not charged Cowell with a hate crime. He is charged with murder and attempted murder, and could face life in prison if convicted.
Criminal proceedings were put on hold in December after Cowell’s defense attorney, Christina Moore, questioned her client’s competency to stand trial. Cowell suffered from “extreme delusion” and “extreme paranoia,” she said, making him unable to assist in his defense.
Three doctors were commissioned to offer their opinion on Cowell’s state of mind. The first two experts couldn’t reach a consensus — one said Cowell wasn’t fit to stand trial, while the second couldn’t make a determination.
A third doctor who worked off the findings of his predecessors effectively made the final call, saying Cowell was, in fact, fit to stand trial. Alameda County Superior Court Judge James Cramer last month called this assessment the most “valid and persuasive,” and he reinstated Cowell’s criminal proceedings.
Competency to stand trial and pleading guilty by reason of insanity are two separate legal concepts. Competency relates to the defendant’s ability to assist in the defense at the time of trial, while a plea of not guilty by reason of insanity speaks to the defendant’s mental state at the time of the crime.
Megan Cassidy is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: megan.cassidy@sfchronicle.com Twitter: @meganrcassidy
Megan Cassidy is a crime reporter with The Chronicle, also covering cops, criminal justice issues and mayhem. Previously, Cassidy worked for the Arizona Republic covering Phoenix police, Sheriff Joe Arpaio and desert-area crime and mayhem. She is a two-time graduate of the University of Missouri, and has additionally worked at the Casper Star-Tribune, National Geographic and an online publication in Buenos Aires. Cassidy can be reached on twitter at @meganrcassidy, and will talk about true crime as long as you’ll let her.

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