Man accused of killing BART rider Nia Wilson thrown out of court during trial opening statements

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Thursday, February 6, 2020
Man accused of killing BART rider thrown out of court
There were some dramatic moments in court Wednesday during opening statements in the trial of the man accused of killing a young woman on BART

OAKLAND, Calif. (KGO) -- There were some dramatic moments in court Wednesday during opening statements in the trial of the man accused of killing a young woman on BART in 2018.

The judge threw defendant John Lee Cowell out of court after he interrupted the prosecuting attorney. Later, jurors were shown horrific surveillance video of the stabbing that left Nia Wilson dead and her sister wounded.

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Prosecutors say Cowell, 29, fatally stabbed Wilson, 18, at the MacArthur station on July 22, 2018. They argue Cowell is an evil killer who was lying in wait to attack the sisters. But Cowell's attorney says he is a diagnosed schizophrenic and suffered from the delusional belief that people were trying to kill him and that needed to harm other people.

Near the start of the prosecution's opening statement, Cowell was apparently upset by the implication that he had followed the Wilson sisters into the Concord BART station. His outbursts came as Alameda County Deputy District Attorney Amilcar "Butch" Ford showed surveillance photos of both Cowell and the three sisters entering the station. Alameda County Superior Court Judge Allan Hymer gave Cowell a warning after his first outburst and then ordered him out after he continued to mutter about the timing of when he and the sister entered the station.

Ford went on to show surveillance photos and video of the sisters riding the same BART car as Cowell for 25 minutes before exiting at the MacArthur station to transfer to another train. Cowell could be seen following the sisters and then stabbing Wilson and her older sister Letifah as they boarded another train. Both sisters were stabbed in the neck. A police officer could later be seen performing CPR on Nia Wilson. Letifah Wilson was seen standing pressing her neck wound.

RELATED: Memorial service held for Nia Wilson, stabbing victim at Oakland BART station

Outside court, Wilson's mother told reporters that she looked at some of the surveillance still photos but could not look at the video showing the fatal stabbing.

"That was too much for me to watch," Alicia Greyson said

When asked about Cowell being kicked out of court, Greyson said, "Honestly I think he got kicked out on purpose because he didn't want to see the video."

As the video was shown to the jury made up of eight women and four men, a male juror wiped tears from his eyes, a female juror appeared on the verge of tears. Most of the other jurors were stone-faced. At the moment the video played showing the two sisters being stabbed, gasps followed by sobs could be heard in the courtroom.

Alameda County Deputy Public Defender Christina Moore told jurors that Cowell had been treated for mental illness about four dozen times as both an inpatient and outpatient between 2012 and the time of the murder in 2018. She said that Cowell's actions were indicative not of a calculated killer but of a severely mentally ill person suffering from delusions. She noted that Cowell had discarded his backpack with his identification and with his labeled prescription medication shortly after exiting the station pay gates. Cowell had no motive, Moore said.

RELATED: 'He was wiping off his knife': BART stabbing victim recalls horrific attack that killed sister

"There was no plan. There was no watching or waiting," the defense attorney told jurors.

Cowell was allowed to return to court for the beginning of Moore's arguments but was absent after the lunch break when Moore concluded. Judge Hymer told jurors to not let Cowell's absence influence their view of him or the facts of the case.

After Moore concluded, the prosecution presented three witnesses, all BART employees, one a BART technician who talked about the process of retrieving surveillance video and two BART police officers, one of whom also discussed the retrieval of the surveillance video. The second officer talked about finding the suspected murder weapon, a kitchen knife, at a construction area next to the station the day after the attack.

See more stories and videos related to Nia Wilson here.