Convicted in 1999, McNeil & attorneys have new DNA evidence that proves no wrongdoing
PINCKNEYVILLE, Ill. (WMBD) — Barton McNeil has spent more than two decades trying to prove his innocence.
In 1999, he was convicted of murdering his own daughter, but McNeil, 63, said he has the evidence to prove his innocence. Thursday afternoon, he and a team of lawyers will get the chance to argue its worthiness in overturning his conviction.
This is the story of Bloomington’s own Barton McNeil.
McNeil currently calls the walls of the Pinckneyville Correctional Center home, serving year 23 of a sentence that will last the rest of his natural life.
McNeil was originally sentenced to life in prison, but it was reduced to 100 years in the early 2000s.
On June 16, 1998, McNeil’s life changed forever. Overnight and early into that morning, his three-year-old daughter, Christina, was murdered in her bedroom as he slept just feet away.
McNeil had shared custody of his daughter with his ex-wife, Tita McNeil, and it was his night to have Christina.
“This is my only photograph, actual photograph, that I have of my daughter,” an emotional McNeil told WMBD’s Austin Schick in prison on May 4.
The next morning, when McNeil awoke to get his daughter ready for daycare, he found his toddler unresponsive and called 911. Once on scene, investigators scoured the apartment for evidence, but ultimately ruled Christina’s cause of death due to be suffocation.
At the time, they did not suspect foul play.
However, as the day carried on, McNeil took a closer look at the room and noticed something was not right.
“You can actually see this thing is bent, it’s unlatched, you can see sunlight coming through the bottom here. This is intruder evidence 101,” McNeil said, describing the state of the first-floor bedroom window where Christina slept when she stayed the night.
After finding the room in disarray, McNeil called police back to the scene and claimed someone broke into his apartment then murdered his daughter in the middle of the night.
He never thought police would pin the crime on him.
“Supposing that I was the guilty party, why would I call the police back to the (scene)? That just doesn’t make logical sense that I would want to draw the police’s attention to Christina’s death if it was a murder,” McNeil said.
McNeil said investigators missed crucial evidence when initially on the scene, including the broken window and a window fan on the floor. The specific piece of intruder evidence McNeil points to is two holes cut into the window screen.
“How do you not see that there are two holes in opposite corners of the screen immediately below the latch/release pull tabs?” McNeil said. “When they said there’s no intruder evidence, that’s BS. This window was not in this condition when I put Christina to bed that night.”
A day later, McNeil was arrested and a year after that, in 1999, he was convicted of murder. McNeil said his public defender pushed for a bench trial, and Judge Michael Prall presided.
Prall did not respond to text messages or calls from WMBD prior to this report.
Since then, McNeil has been consistent with his story and has claimed his innocence. Now, he’s pinning the crime on his ex-lover.
“It had to be Misook. I mean, nobody else had it out for me. Nobody else had it out for Christina. Nobody else had it out for Christina’s mother, who Misook loathed,” McNeil said.
That woman is Misook Nowlin. Bart and Misook had been dating and were involved sexually.
June 15, 1998, was the last day McNeil saw his daughter alive, but the day before, he broke off his relationship with Nowlin for good.
“I’m not even thinking foul play, but as the day wore on, I was more and more thinking about the problems I was having with Misook. I had broken up with her the night before (in) this real dramatic fight at the restaurant,” McNeil said.
McNeil describes Nowlin as a “jealous” person and said she was stalking him.
In 1997, Nowlin was arrested for domestic battery for an incident involving McNeil. A year later, in 1998, she was found guilty of the crime. Her sentencing for that crime was scheduled for June 17, 1998, the day after Christina’s murder.
McNeil claims Nowlin despised Christina and saw her as a hindrance to the time the couple could spend together.
So, why is he convinced Nowlin is the cold-blooded killer? McNeil said it’s her history of violence.
“Her arrest and conviction for battering her daughter two months after my arrest. I mean, if that didn’t speak to who was responsible for Christina’s murder, I don’t know what else would,” McNeil said.
In September 1998 Nowlin was charged with domestic battery again, this time for an incident involving her own daughter, Michelle. In 1999, she was found guilty.
“What we have in this case is a classic example of tunnel vision, where the detectives and police zeroed in on a suspect right away and may not have investigated others as closely as they should have,” said Associate Professor of Social Psychology at Illinois Wesleyan Amanda Vicary.
Vicary uses McNeil’s case in her wrongful convictions class at Illinois Wesleyan. Freshmen in the course can speak with McNeil over the phone, and learn how and why wrongful convictions happen.
McNeil, Vicary, and others are even more convinced Nowlin could have played a role in Christina’s death after what Nowlin did in 2011.
“I open the envelope and I pull out a photocopy of the Pantagraph front page and there is Misook’s picture, and I’m like, ‘Oh my god,'” McNeil said.
The front page of the newspaper read, “Woman charged in slaying.”
The murdered woman was Linda Tyda. Nowlin’s mother-in-law.
Nowlin, who now has the last name Wang, was married to Don Wang when she killed his mother after she and her husband were having marital issues.
“We know with her other murder she was going through a divorce from Don Wang, and what did she do? She murdered the closest female in his life: his mother,” Vicary said. “What happened when she and Bart were finally over and had their big public breakup? That very night, the closest female in his life, his daughter, was murdered.”
In 2013, Nowlin-Wang was found guilty of murdering Linda Tyda. She received a total sentence of 55 years in prison and is currently incarcerated at the Logan Correctional Center in Lincoln.
“Very few people are capable of cold-blooded murder. I’d like to think, anyway,” Vicary said. “We know Misook can kill. She can kill with her bare hands, so that must make people look at this and think there’s at least a possibility that she could have been involved in Christina’s death.”
In a previous report on McNeil, Stephanie Kamel, the director and an attorney with the Illinois Innocence Project, said nearly 6% of people in prison for serious crimes, murder, rape, etc. are wrongfully convicted. She also said the office receives hundreds of requests a year, but can only take so many.
“I was elated, of course, when the Innocence Project itself had picked up my case, and then some years later, it was icing on the cake that the Exoneration Project also latched on,” McNeil said.
Scott Reeder, a longtime journalist in Springfield, said he’s worked with both projects in the past and their screening process is intensive.
“They screen their cases so well, and they go through them so thoroughly, that they don’t take marginal cases. They only take cases where they’re personally convinced the person is factually innocent,” Reeder said. “The worst thing that could possibly happen to them as an organization is to represent somebody, have them be found wrongfully convicted, and then for them to go out and commit another crime.”
At a May 12 hearing, McNeil’s attorneys will argue that the newly found DNA evidence proves his innocence and Nowlin-Wang’s guilt.
Touch DNA from the bedsheets and pillow case that were processed years later turned up hairs matching the DNA profile of Nowlin-Wang.
“Not one hair from me was found anywhere on the bedsheets … yet the lone hair, whose origin has been identified, originated from Misook,” McNeil said.
The State argued this should be thrown out, as the McNeil and Nowlin-Wang had a sexual relationship, and it would not be uncommon to find Nowlin-Wang’s DNA on the bedding.
However, McNeil said what the state fails to see is proof he had the bedsheets washed that day before Christina stayed the night.
According to police reports taken that night that were showed to WMBD, the sheets are described as smelling clean.
“These sheets would not still smell clean if they hadn’t been laundered for a week or two,” McNeil said. “I picked up my laundry from Econo Wash that very day and put those sheets on the bed earlier that afternoon.”
McNeil said on June 15 and 16, there would have been no reason for Nowlin-Wang to be at his apartment.
“No. Absolutely not. She hasn’t been there since five days earlier,” McNeil said.
Couple that fact with Nowlin-Wang’s conviction, evidence showing his daughter was not sexually assaulted prior to her death, and McNeil believes it packs a powerful one-two punch proving his innocence.
In his 1999 trial, prosecutors argued McNeil’s motive was to cover up his sexual abuse of Christina- an accusation he vehemently denies.
“I’ve never had a thought like that. If I ever even entertained the thought of that, I’d sooner cut my thing off than act upon it. It’s disgusting. It’s gross. A prepubescent three-year-old? I mean, come on,” McNeil said. “I’ve never seen an image of child pornography. I think the whole thing is abhorrent.”
No one associated with the case returned phone calls or texts to WMBD. Former Assistant State’s Attorney and lead prosecutor in McNeil’s case, Teena Griffin, failed to return any texts or voicemails to reporter Austin Schick.
Judge Michael Prall also failed to return any texts or calls. Investigators on the case could not be immediately reached for this story.
In a 40 plus page response filed April 1 by the State’s Attorney’s office, Assistant State’s Attorney Mary Koll’s main argument is none of the evidence is “new,” it is “non-material” to the case, or “inconclusive.”
WMBD will be in the courtroom.