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Judge Allows Bart McNeil To Take Next Step In Quest For New Murder Trial

Barton McNeil
Illinois Department of Corrections
Bart McNeil is serving 100 years on murder charges in the suffocation death of 3-year-old Christina McNeil.

Bart McNeil’s petition seeking a new trial in the 1998 death of his young daughter will move forward in McLean County court, a judge has ruled, in a decision that recognizes potential new evidence that may support McNeil’s innocence.

McNeil is serving 100 years on murder charges in the suffocation death of 3-year-old Christina McNeil. McNeil claimed he found the child’s lifeless body in her bed at his Bloomington apartment, maintaining his innocence while encouraging police to investigate his former girlfriend, Misook Nowlin, as a suspect. Nowlin was later convicted in the 2011 strangulation of her mother-in-law, Linda Tyda.

In February, lawyers with the Illinois Innocence Project and The Exoneration Project filed a 65-page petition asserting McNeil’s innocence of the murder.

Newly developed scientific evidence challenges claims by former pathologist Dr. Violette Hnilica that the child was molested before she was smothered. Authorities relied upon an accusation that McNeil molested his daughter to support their theory of a motive for her death.

“The bottom line is that modern science completely repudiates Hnilica’s testimony regarding any alleged motive,” said the defense motion.

Forensic tests performed after McNeil’s conviction on hair collected from inside the child’s pillowcase showed the hair was consistent with Nowlin’s DNA, the defense argues. Nowlin also could not be excluded from DNA collected from a bedsheet.

In his brief notation allowing the petition to be filed, Judge William Yoder said, “because at least one of the grounds for relief allege exculpatory evidence outside the record and is not directly refuted by the record, the entire petition shall be docketed for 2nd stage review.”

Yoder did not specify which potential new evidence he considered strong enough to justify additional proceedings in the case. Most post-conviction petitions do not clear the hurdles for a second-stage review.

Yoder set a Nov. 12 hearing to review the status of McNeil’s petition.

McNeil's conviction was the subject of the WGLT podcastSuspect Convictionsin 2018.

Edith Brady-Lunny was a correspondent at WGLT, joining the station in 2019. She left the station in 2024.