Special circumstance of lying in wait means suspect in Nia Wilson's slaying could face death penalty

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The Alameda County District Attorney has added the special circumstance of lying in wait against John Lee Cowell, the man charged with murder in the fatal stabbing of 18-year-old Nia Wilson at the MacArthur BART station in Oakland. 

This development means Cowell could face the death penalty, or life in prison if convicted. 

This comes about a week after attorneys representing Wilson's family filed a claim against BART charging that her death was preventable.

According to the claim, BART failed to take action when the suspect, John Cowell, is believed to have jumped a BART turn-style to avoid paying a fair and that the agency should have known he was a threat, because two other riders complained about his behavior in the days prior to Wilson's 

John Cowell was arrested while riding a BART train a day after allegedly slashing Wilson's throat on the MacArthur station platform on July 22 around 9:35 p.m. Cowell also stabbed her sister Letifah Wilson, 26, in her neck as another sister, Tashiya Wilson, 21, watched in horror.

Cowell was charged with murder for allegedly killing Nia Wilson and with premeditated attempted murder for the alleged attack on Letifah Wilson.

At a previous news conference, accompanied by Wilson's sisters and her parents, Attorney Robert Arns said, "What the family wants to do with this lawsuit, one of the main things, is make BART safe for everyone. Nia, in her short life at age 18, she wanted to save lives," he said, adding that she dreamt of becoming a medical technician and joining the U.S. Navy.

"Nia's death is not some horrific anomaly that occurred in two seconds and that nobody could do anything about," he said. "There's a serious and endemic public safety problem on BART and just about everybody who rides BART knows that."

According to the claim, BART has continuously failed to stop people sneaking onto the system without paying.

Arns said his attorneys plan to prove a link between fare evasion and crime on public transportation, adding that public records show more than 22,000 people ride BART illegally on a daily basis.

Arns said Cowell had been cited for fare evasion on BART at least once before.

In addition, Arns said two different people have contacted his law firm since Nia Wilson's murder, claiming that Cowell had threatened them on BART in the days before the July 22 killing.

One, a 72-year-old woman, said that as she was leaving San Francisco's Civic Center station, Cowell accosted her. She said he made a slashing movement across his neck in a threatening manner when she told him "I'm not afraid of you," 

The woman then went to report the threat to the station agent, but couldn't find one and ultimately did not report it, Arns said.

Another person told Arns they also encountered Cowell at the MacArthur station and noticed he had a knife. That person also tried to report it to the station agent but ultimately couldn't find one.

"If BART stopped criminal fare evaders, Nia would be alive," Arns said. "What is the standard for BART? That they must use the highest care to protect passengers from assault."

The claim is seeking that BART institute a program called the Nia Wilson Crime Statistics Notice, displaying crime data for the last four years at each BART station, including in the parking lots, platforms and on cars. It's also seeking that BART implement safety measures and staffing policies 
to prevent fare evasion and criminal activity at all BART stations.

The claim was filed with BART as a public entity claim because the transit agency is a public entity. BART must respond to the claim within six months, attorney Jonathan Davis said.

If the claim moves forward, a lawsuit will then be filed in Alameda County Superior Court, according to Davis.