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Lawyers argue merits of Bart McNeil's innocence petition

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

Lawyers for Bart McNeil asked a judge on Thursday to approve a full evidentiary hearing on McNeil’s innocence claim in the death of his 3-year-old daughter.

McNeil was convicted in 1999 of suffocating Christina McNeil during her overnight stay at his Bloomington apartment. In his statements to police shortly after the child’s death, McNeil pointed to his former girlfriend Misook Nowlin as a possible suspect. Police arrested McNeil, theorizing that he may have sexually abused the girl before her death. He is serving a life sentence. His story was the subject of WGLT's 2018 podcast series Suspect Convictions.

After hearing arguments from McNeil’s legal team and prosecutor Mary Koll, Judge William Yoder took the case under advisement, promising a ruling within 60 days.

In their petition seeking a new trial, McNeil’s lawyers contend they a have medical expert who has serious doubts about the state’s theory of how and when the girl died. Lawyers with the Illinois Innocence Project and The Exoneration Project became involved in McNeil’s case after Nowlin was found guilty of killing her mother-in-law Linda Tyda in 2011. She is serving 55 years on murder charges.

The state has conceded that McNeil is entitled to a hearing on new evidence related to an alleged confession by Nowlin to her ex-husband Don Wang.

“I don’t think there’s any way around advancing the petition on those two claims,” said Koll.

Scientific evidence that Nowlin’s DNA was found in Christina’s bed is linked to the romantic involvement McNeil had with Misook and “confirms the two had an intimate relationship.”

Koll opened her remarks by acknowledging “this is the most serious type of hearing imaginable for Mr. McNeil.”

A large group of McNeil supporters filled the courtroom to hear arguments by defense lawyer Karl Leonard with the Exoneration Project. The defendant waved to the audience and thanked them for coming before he was returned to prison in Pinckneyville.

Leonard renewed the defense position that all the new evidence in the case must be heard and not separated piecemeal for an evidentiary hearing.

The defense lawyer called the state’s claim that Nowlin’s DNA would likely be on the bed “wholly false.” McNeil told police he had had the sheets laundered before his daughter’s arrival and that he and Nowlin had last had sex a week earlier had her apartment.

After the hearing, McNeil’s cousin Chris Ross told reporters, “it’s critically important you see all the evidence. There’s no shadow of a doubt he’s innocent.”

Ross, who traveled from California for the hearing, said he stays in close contact with McNeil. McNeil and his supporters have confidence in the defense team, he said.

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