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Prosecutors push back on Barton McNeil's claims in his push for new trial in daughter's murder

Bart McNeil
David Proeber
The Pantagraph (Pool) file
Bart McNeil during a recent court hearing in McLean County.

Evidence that Christina McNeil was murdered by someone other than her father was challenged on Friday by the state in a motion to dismiss Bart McNeil’s petition for a new trial on charges that he suffocated the 3-year-old girl.

In 1999, McNeil was convicted of killing the child and sentenced to 100 years in prison. He has maintained his innocence, claiming police overlooked his former girlfriend, Misook Nowlin, as a likely suspect. The two ended their rocky relationship hours before the child’s lifeless body was found by her father in her bed at his Bloomington apartment.

In a 41-page filing, the state takes issue with potential new evidence outlined by the Illinois Innocence Project in McNeil’s petition filed in March 2021. The defense pointed to new forensic analysis of a pathologist’s opinion that the child had been sexually abused before her death. The alleged abuse was a key element of the state’s case against McNeil — the theory that the father suffocated the child after he molested her.

The state argues the defense evidence related to the pathologist is not “new” or “modern” and was available at the time of McNeil’s bench trial. The recent opinion comes for a doctor who “simply holds a different interpretation of the autopsy findings and a different opinion as to cause of death than the State’s forensic pathologist,” said the state in its motion filed by prosecutor Mary Koll.

Hours after his daughter’s body was discovered, McNeil summoned police back to his apartment. He told officer Randy McKinley, who later became Bloomington police chief, that he suspected an intruder may have climbed in Christina’s window and killed her. McKinley and other officers denied seeing any evidence of an intruder.

The presence of spider webs on a window screen has been a subject of debate at hearings in McNeil’s case, with the state maintaining the insects were undisturbed by an intruder the night of the death and McNeil’s legal team arguing that spiders have the ability to quickly replace their webs if they are knocked down.

Allegations of Nowlin’s involvement in Christina’s death became public after the Bloomington woman was charged with murder in the strangulation death of her mother-in-law, Linda Tyda. Before convicting the Bloomington woman of the killing, jurors heard evidence of Nowlin’s obsession with money and her jealousy of her husband’s friendship with another woman.

On the issue of Nowlin's DNA found on bed sheets and a pillowcase after the death, the state dismisses the defense claim that the newly discovered evidence puts Nowlin on a list of viable suspects.

“Given the nature of their relationship, it is natural and completely expected that Ms. Nowlin’s hair would be found in defendant’s residence, and particularly on his bedding,” the state argued.

As part of his innocence claim, McNeil has indicated the bed sheets were laundered after Misook’s final visit to his home, and before the child spent the night.

The statement from one of Nowlin’s former neighbors that she was saw Nowlin “go between the closet and her apartment in the middle of the night on June 16, 1998,” the night of the death, does not qualify as newly-discovered evidence, according to the state.

The state agreed with McNeil’s lawyers that he is entitled to a hearing on statements from two people who allege that Nowlin’s former husband, Don Wang, told them Nowlin confessed to killing Christina.

Nowlin’s murder conviction in the Tyda case is irrelevant to McNeil’s murder case, the state contends.

McNeil’s cousin, Chris Ross, said Friday the state’s filing “is clearly designed to protect those who served 23 years ago in the same office and all those who originally investigated the case.” The state’s arguments are “counter to modern science and common sense and discount Misook’s now known capacity to premeditatively plan and murder another person just as she did to Linda Tyda 13 years later.”

In a statement from McNeil provided by his family, the defendant said “I am calling today for the same thing that I have been seeking since Day One and that is accountability in that Misook Nowlin be charged, prosecuted and convicted for my child’s murder.”

A May 12 hearing is set on the state’s motion to dismiss McNeil’s petition for a new trial.

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