OAKLAND — A case that captured the nation’s attention — a young Black woman on her way home with her sisters was randomly attacked and killed by a white stranger on a BART platform — came to an end Friday, when her attacker was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
It was almost two years ago, July 22, 2018, when 18-year-old Nia Wilson and two of her sisters were taking BART home to Oakland after a family gathering in Concord. As they transferred trains at the MacArthur Station at 9:35 p.m., John Lee Cowell suddenly stabbed Wilson in the neck, killing her. Cowell also stabbed her sister Letifah Wilson, who survived.
“You stole my baby sister from her loving family because of your hatred toward black African-American women,” Letifah Wilson said to Cowell on Friday before he was sentenced to two life in prison terms by Alameda County Superior Court Judge Allan Hymer.
Cowell, 29, was convicted in March of the first-degree murder of Nia Wilson with the special circumstance of lying in wait, and the attempted murder of Letifah Wilson. The special circumstance made him eligible for the death penalty, but the district attorney’s office decided not to pursue it.
Letifah Wilson and another sister, Tashiya Wilson, who was also present that night but was steps ahead of her sisters, gave emotional statements Friday during the virtual sentencing hearing. Tashiya Wilson cried as she spoke, and Letifah Wilson was visibly angry, telling the court she was trying not to use profanity. Both told Cowell that he stole their youngest sister, the baby of the family, from them and traumatized them for life.
“May God have mercy on your soul,” Letifah Wilson said.
“You took our baby,” said Tashiya Wilson, who was not physically hurt that night. “I’ll never be OK, never.”
Although Cowell was never charged with a hate crime, the family maintains that Cowell’s actions were racially motivated. Nia Wilson’s death sparked a national reaction in 2018, as some agreed that Cowell, who is white, killed the young woman and tried to kill Letifah Wilson because of their race.
Alicia Grayson, Nia Wilson’s mother, gave a brief statement Friday: “I just want to say, thank God justice was served. And he just better pray to God that he can sleep every night and continue on living.”
“She had so many big plans that were cut short. … Her body may be gone but her spirit will live forever,” said Nia Wilson’s cousin, Candice Hoyes.
During the hearing, Cowell’s defense attorney Christina Moore asked the judge to strike a reference in a report from the probation department about allegations that Cowell once belonged to the “Peckerwood gang” — a white supremacist prison gang. Moore said the defense “vehemently” denied the allegation, but Judge Hymer left one reference in the report. This is the first time anything race-related in the case was publicly stated in court.
Cowell pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity. But Hymer ultimately found Cowell to be sane at the time of the crimes.
While testifying during the trial, Cowell claimed the Wilson sisters were “aliens” or gang members who had kidnapped his grandmother. He was often hostile toward Alameda County Deputy District Attorney Butch Ford during cross-examination, which he never completed because he was booted from the courtroom for his outbursts on the stand.
Moore argued that Cowell had a history of documented mental health, including diagnoses of schizophrenia and paranoid schizophrenia.
Ford instead argued that Cowell knew what he was doing during the crimes. He noted that immediately after the stabbing, Cowell tried to cover up his tracks: He wiped the knife he used clean, threw it into a construction site, changed his clothes and hid his backpack, Ford said.
District Attorney Nancy O’Malley issued a statement Friday about what she called “one of the most tragic murder cases in recent memory.”
“The horrific killing of Nia Wilson and the assault on her sister will haunt her family, loved ones and our community forever. Mr. Cowell will now serve the remainder of his life in prison. It is my hope that Nia’s family feels that justice was served and can continue on the path of healing,” O’Malley said.
During Friday’s hearing, Cowell gave no statement. His voice was only heard when he asked Hymer a question about filing an appeal.