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Judge denies Barton McNeil's petition for new trial in 1998 Bloomington murder

 Barton McNeil enters the courtroom
Edith Brady-Lunny
/
WGLT file
Barton McNeil enters the courtroom for a hearing in November 2023 at the McLean County Law and Justice Center in Bloomington.

New evidence in the murder case that sent Barton McNeil to prison for life in the death of his 3-year-old daughter would likely be inadmissible at a second trial, a McLean County judge has ruled in denying McNeil’s petition to bring the case before a new jury.

Judge William Yoder acknowledged that assertions from two women that they were told McNeil’s former girlfriend, Misook Nowlin, confessed to killing the child constitutes newly discovered evidence in the 1998 murder case. Nowlin was later convicted of murder in the strangulation death of her mother-in-law, Linda Tyda. The cases were featured in WGLT's 2018 podcast Suspect Convictions.

The two women who testified in November 2023 about the alleged confession are Nowlin’s daughter, Michelle Spencer, and Dawn Nowlin, who is married to Nowlin’s first husband, Andy Nowlin. The confession was allegedly made by Don Wang, Misook Nowlin’s husband at the time Tyda was murdered.

In his decision, Yoder said, “The evidence of the assertions by Michelle Spencer and Dawn Nowlin do constitute newly discovered evidence. However, the testimony would almost certainly not be admissible at a retrial as the defendant would first have to call Don Wang to testify that Misook Nowlin never confessed to him and then call Michelle Spencer and Dawn Nowlin to attempt to impeach Don Wang’s testimony. Such testimony by Don Wang would not damage the defendant’s case but would not fail to support its theory.”

Yoder concluded the testimony of the two women “is not conclusive evidence, that considered along with the other trial evidence, would probably lead to a different result at a retrial.”

The defense theory is that Misook Nowlin killed Christina McNeil during an overnight stay at her father’s apartment in Bloomington. McNeil has long argued that Nowlin was seeking revenge after he and his former girlfriend ended their relationship hours before the child was believed to have died.

A similar theory was used by the state in the Tyda case. Prosecutors argued Nowlin killed her mother-in-law after Nowlin became aware that her marriage to Don Wang was headed for divorce.

In a written statement issued on Friday, McNeil said, “Judge Yoder’s latest ruling has made himself a party to three murders. As a former McLean County state’s attorney, he fought to maintain my wrongful conviction in the service of Misook Nowlin’s child-killing getaway. In doing so, he facilitated Nowlin’s later killing of Linda Tyda. And as a judge, he is determined to unjustly take my own life despite his awareness of my innocence.”

Yoder previously denied McNeil’s claim that a jury should hear that Nowlin’s DNA was found on the child’s bedsheets. “DNA doesn’t lie,” said McNeil, adding the forensic material identified years after his conviction “can only be the direct result of her direct involvement in my daughter’s murder.”

McNeil family renewed their support on Friday for a statewide conviction integrity unit to review criminal convictions and innocence claims. “Barton McNeil should be this unit’s very first case,” said the family statement.

McLean County State's Attorney Erika Reynolds said in a statement Friday that "the latest order is yet another example of a reviewing court confirming the jury’s findings. The original investigation and every follow-up, including multiple interviews conducted in 2012 by the Bloomington Police Department to explore the defendant’s latest assertions, have supported that Barton McNeil murdered his daughter."

An appeal by the defense is expected to be filed with the Fourth District Appellate Court.

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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