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Suspect Convictions Episode 3: Does Modern Forensics Undercut Sex Assault Motive?

Family Photo
Christina McNeil’s lifeless body was found in her father Barton’s Bloomington apartment on June 16, 1998.";s:

GLT is partnering with the true crime podcast Suspect Convictions to explore the 1998 murder of 3-year-old Bloomington girl Christina McNeil.

Her father was convicted of the crime but has long maintained his innocence, claiming that an ex-girlfriend was the real killer—the same woman later convicted in a separate murder. New episodes air Fridays on GLT’s Sound Ideas. You can also subscribe to the podcast.

Credit Illinois Department of Corrections
Illinois Department of Corrections
Barton McNeil is now serving a 150-year prison sentence at Menard Correctional Center in southern Illinois.

When prosecutors accused Barton McNeil of murdering his daughter, their theory about his motive hinged on physical evidence showing the 3-year-old was sexually assaulted prior to her death.

Now, as McNeil’s Illinois Innocence Project defense team works toward his exoneration, questions are being raised about whether any sexual assault ever took place. And if it did, McNeil’s defense suggests that his ex-girlfriend’s troubled background points to her as the abuser—and killer.

Episode 3 of GLT’s true crime podcast Suspect Convictions focuses on the signs of sexual assault found on Christina’s body during an autopsy. Her father was eventually convicted of her 1998 murder and is now serving a 150-year prison sentence at a southern Illinois prison.

McNeil was never charged with sexually assaulting her. But that accusation weighed heavy during McNeil’s bench trial; prosecutors said it was part of his motive for killing her—to cover up the abuse. A pathologist testified that some redness and enlarged orifices on Christina’s body indicated sexual assault, even if there wasn’t deep penetration and no semen was ever found.

But in the 20 years since that testimony, forensic science now considers those changes to the human body as part of the natural death process, said Gwen Jordan with the Illinois Innocence Project. The IIP plans to file motions this fall in hopes of winning McNeil a new trial.

“That evidence has been completely discredited by scientists today,” Jordan said. “What they know is part of the natural process of rigor mortis is that the orifices open. It means that the body has died and rigor mortis is setting in. The theory that the prosecutor used originally has been discounted by changes in science.”

"That evidence has been completely discredited by scientists today."

McLean County State’s Attorney Jason Chambers, who did not originally prosecute the case, recently hired a new forensic pathologist to review the autopsy report and photos of the body. (Christina’s body was cremated, so her body can’t be exhumed for additional testing.)

Chambers’ office contends some sexual assault took place, discounting McNeil’s accusations that his ex-girlfriend, Misook (Wang) Nowlin, could have abused Christina with a sex toy.

“(McNeil’s) unusual comments and unusual behavior throughout the investigation is some evidence of his consciousness of guilt,” said Mary Koll, an assistant state’s attorney in Chambers’ office. “His unusual attempts to divert attention and to control the investigation, I think, shows that there’s something more going on in his guilty mind than an innocent person.”

From the very beginning, McNeil has said he believes Nowlin was the real killer, motivated in part by their recent breakup around the time of the murder. That theory has taken on new resonance after Nowlin was convicted in 2012 of killing her mother-in-law. Nowlin is currently serving a 55-year prison sentence. She could not be reached for comment.

Could a woman have committed this crime, including any sexual assault? Yes, says Franca Cortoni, an expert on female sex offenders who teaches at the University of Montreal.

Research indicates that women can engage in the same deviant sexual acts as men, though they tend to engage proportionally less often in penetration than men, Cortoni said.

“There’s still this idea (among police and the public) that a woman can’t do this, that it’s impossible that it would be a woman to do something like this,” Cartoni said. “It does impact how professionals see potential offenders and potential victims.”

Listen to Episode 3 of Suspect Convictions:

On Next Week’s Episode: Suspect Convictions,hosts Willis Kern and Scott Reeder are joined by nationally-known true crime reporters and podcasters Aphrodite Jones and Bob Ruff. They'll discuss the mysterious 1998 death of Christina McNeil of Bloomington.

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Willis is a Bloomington, IL, native. During his senior year at Bloomington High School, he finished third in the "Radio Speaking" division of the state speech contest, the only year he competed.