FAC Moves to Unseal Records in BART Station Murder Case

The First Amendment Coalition today asked a judge to unseal records in the criminal case against John Lee Cowell, the man charged in the stabbing death of teenager Nia Wilson at an Oakland BART station in 2018.

FAC’s motion to unseal comes after Cowell’s attorney filed a secret motion to toss all charges, potentially preventing the public from knowing anything about what legal arguments or evidence Cowell is using to try to end his case before trial.

Alameda County Superior Court Judge Kevin Murphy allowed Cowell to place the motion — in its entirety — under seal, after finding that media attention to the high-profile fatal stabbing could taint the jury pool, jeopardizing the Cowell’s right to a fair trial.

But as FAC’s motion states, the defense cited no evidence to justify secrecy, as required under the First Amendment and California law. Moreover, the court considered no alternatives to secrecy — also a legal requirement for sealing.

“This case involves terrible crimes committed at public transportation facilities used by thousands of commuters daily. There is a legitimate public interest in these proceedings, especially a motion to dismiss the charges” said FAC Litigation Director Glen Smith. “More public access and transparency, not secrecy, is the best way to reassure the community that justice will be done. And given the size and diversity of the juror pool, there is no real threat to the defendant’s right to a fair trial.”

FAC also asked the court to make public the grand jury transcripts, which were placed under seal after Cowell was indicted in October 2018 on murder and other charges, including attempted murder in connection with the stabbing of Wilson’s sister Letifah Wilson. Post-indictment grand jury transcripts are presumed public under California Penal Code § 938.1(b), which requires public disclosure unless the defendant can show that it will create a “reasonable likelihood” that it would be impossible to find 12 impartial jurors. The bare existence of pre-trial publicity is not enough to justify secrecy. 

FAC requested a hearing on its motion to unseal on Nov. 15. That hearing, if granted, will take place prior to a Nov. 22 hearing on the defense motion to set aside the indictment, a pivotal request that should be litigated in the open.

FAC is represented on the motion by the Press Freedom and Transparency practice at UC Irvine School of Law’s Intellectual Property, Arts, and Technology Clinic. The clinic founded the Press Freedom and Transparency practice in 2018 to provide free legal services to empower local, independent, and diverse journalists, bloggers, podcasters, photojournalists, media organizations, and others who are engaged in enterprise journalism and investigative reporting. Law students work under the direction of media lawyer Susan Seager and clinic director Jack Lerner. Law students participated in the substantive legal work on FAC’s motion, and students will argue in Alameda Superior Court if the hearing is granted.

“Our team of UC Irvine law students and I are standing in the shoes of the community of Oakland to ask the court to let sunshine into the courtroom to ensure public confidence in the outcome of this case,” Seager said.

View FAC’s motion to unseal; Cowell’s application and memo to seal the motion to set aside the indictment; and Judge Murphy’s order to seal.

For more information:
Glen Smith 
Litigation Director
The First Amendment Coalition

Susan E. Seager
UC Irvine School of Law
UCI Intellectual Property, Arts, and Technology Clinic
Press Freedom and Transparency practice

About the UCI Intellectual Property, Arts, and Technology Clinic
In the UCI Intellectual Property, Arts, and Technology Clinic, students work to support innovation and expression in the digital age by advising and representing clients on a range of matters dealing with copyright, patent, privacy and media law, among other areas. Clients include artists, entrepreneurs, filmmakers, journalists, nonprofits, policymakers, and scientists. Through this work, Clinic students gain important legal skills while examining the role of the public interest in intellectual property and technology law. For more information about the IPAT Clinic, visit https://ipat.law.uci.edu.