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In new filing, Bart McNeil's defense says full picture of evidence points to innocence

Bart McNeil
David Proeber
The Pantagraph (Pool) file
Bart McNeil, now 62, was convicted in 1999 of killing his daughter Christina during an overnight stay at his Bloomington home.

Bart McNeil is entitled to a thorough review of newly-discovered evidence in the death of his 3-year-old daughter, McNeil’s lawyers argued in a new court filing related to his petition for a new trial on murder charges.

McNeil, now 62, was convicted in 1999 of killing his daughter Christina during an overnight stay at his Bloomington home. McNeil is serving 100 years in prison on charges that accused him of suffocating the child. His case was featured in WGLT's 2018 podcast Suspect Convictions.

On Thursday, McNeil’s lawyers with the Illinois Innocence Project responded to the state’s motion to dismiss McNeil’s petition for a new trial. McNeil’s request to file the petition based on actual innocence came in early 2021; a ruling by Judge William Yoder to allow the filing was issued in August.

The defense claims that Bloomington police failed to closely scrutinize McNeil’s girlfriend Misook Nowlin as a possible suspect. The two ended their relationship following an argument in a local restaurant hours before Christina’s death. The breakup also came the night before the pair was expected in court on a domestic battery charge pending against Nowlin for allegedly injuring McNeil during an argument.

The defense team took issue with what it views as a piecemeal approach by the state as to what evidence Yoder should consider at a May 12 hearing.

“Each piece of newly-discovered evidence must be considered in combination with each other and in combination with the evidence in the record or which is not newly discovered, not in isolation as the state urges,” said the filing. Prosecutors are attempting to “defend McNeil’s conviction by rewriting history and ignoring facts and evidence,” said the defense response.

In their filing, the state argued that new forensic analysis of a pathologist’s report that the child had been sexually abused before her death lacked credibility as new evidence. The abuse accusation was a key part of the state’s case against McNeil.

Advancements in science over the past 22 years have brought into question previous conclusions on time-of-death estimates based on the contents of the child’s stomach, the defense argues. The judge who rendered the guilty verdict in the McNeil case was provided scientific evidence that has since been debunked as unreliable, said the court filing.

A new medical report by Dr. Andrew Baker also takes exception to the state’s conclusion that Christina’s death was a homicide. The defense points to a new opinion that “nothing about the autopsy findings in Christina McNeil’s case supports an objective, independent, diagnosis that she was smothered or that the manner of death was a homicide.”

The two sides are at odds about the significance of DNA linked to Nowlin that was found on the child’s bed after her death. The state contends that McNeil’s romantic relationship with Nowlin makes it reasonable that her DNA could be on the bed.

McNeil’s lawyers point to his earlier statements to police that he and his former girlfriend had sex at his previous apartment but never at the home he recently moved into after leaving the apartment the two shared.

The presence of Nowlin’s hair on the bed is important, said the defense : ““Bart McNeil should receive a new trial based on this evidence alone.”

The defense argues that the judge should be allowed to consider Nowlin’s conviction in the death of her mother-in-law Linda Tyda 13 years after Christina’s death. Similarities exist between the two deaths, said McNeil’s lawyers, including a desire to “take revenge on an ex-partner by killing the person closest to him.”

Edith began her career as a reporter with The DeWitt County Observer, a weekly newspaper in Clinton. From 2007 to June 2019, Edith covered crime and legal issues for The Pantagraph, a daily newspaper in Bloomington, Illinois. She previously worked as a correspondent for The Pantagraph covering courts and local government issues in central Illinois.
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