Convicted murderer’s 23-year-old case receives national attention ahead of November court date

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BLOOMINGTON, Ill. (WMBD) — A decades-old murder case in Bloomington garnered national attention from a cable television true-crime network.

Barton McNeil was found guilty of murdering his then three-year-old daughter in the summer of 1998 but has since maintained his innocence of the crime. The case is now the subject of a two-hour-long TV special on the Oxygen Network.

One of Oxygen’s premiere shows, “Snapped: Behind Bars,” featured McNeil’s fight for freedom and his side of the story and who he believes actually did the crime. It has aired five times nationally and a showing will be held Tuesday night in Normal at the Normal Theater in Uptown.

WMBD spoke with McNeil from prison over the phone about the episode and why to this day he still maintains his innocence in his daughter’s death.

In 1998, then 38-year-old Barton McNeil was arrested for the murder of his daughter, Christina McNeil and in 1999 was found guilty by a McLean County judge on two counts of murder. But McNeil said new DNA evidence and other facts not presented at his 1999 trial pin the crime on his ex-girlfriend.

Barton McNeil has been in prison for more than 20 years of a 100-year sentence for a crime he said he did not commit.

McNeil is currently being housed at the Pinckneyville Correctional Center.

An updated picture of Barton McNeil, in IDOC custody. June 2021 (Barton McNeil)

“There’s no evidence at all. I never raised my voice at my child or my hand, and no one suggested that I ever did,” McNeil said.

McNeil has claimed his innocence since being named a person of interest and ultimately his conviction and said new touch DNA evidence that was not around in the 90s proves his ex-girlfriend, Misook Nowlin Wang is the actual killer.

“Misook’s DNA is all over the bedsheets, and I had just had the sheets laundered earlier that same day. Her DNA should not have been anywhere on those sheets and the DNA doesn’t survive the laundering process either, so she had to have been in direct contact with the sheet since I last laundered it that same day,” McNeil said.

At the time, McNeil just broke up with Nowlin and has since accused her of being his daughter’s killer.

Nowlin is serving a 55-year sentence for murdering her mother-in-law in 2011 and had previously served time in McLean County for domestic violence and child abuse charges. McNeil said this was not presented to his attorneys in 1999.

Misook Nowlin’s mughsot. (Illinois Department of Corrections)

“That whole backstory is incredible and not a word of this ever came up during my trial, so it was pretty thorough railroading,” McNeil said.

Both Christina McNeil and Nowlin’s mother-in-law, Linda Tyda, were strangled to death, and McNeil said he and others are convinced Nowlin is a serial killer.

“The killing of her mother-in-law does parallel in a number of ways to the killing of my daughter,” McNeil said. “I should probably send Misook Nowlin a bouquet of flowers for killing her mother-in-law, because this is what sort of launched everyone’s late-coming realization that hey, Bart was telling the truth this whole time.”

Since 2011, McNeil has had many advocates in his corner, including his cousin, Chris Ross, a self-employed businessman in San Diego. Ross said he wasn’t close to Bart growing up, but he always seemed like a nice guy when they would get together.

“I had probably met Bart three times before I started working on his case for the last 10 years,” Ross said. “When I learned about Misook having strangled her mother-in-law and that he’d been protesting his innocence for 13 years, I said, ‘wow, we need to look into this and our family might be able to help him.’”

Ross has been investigating the case, sifting through old court transcripts and old crime scene evidence on his own time in an attempt to prove Bart’s innocence.

“Fortunately, one of our family members had all of his court transcripts as well as all of his discovery documents; as I looked at each one of these pages, it all pointed to Bart’s innocence, and it all pointed to Misook back in this investigation in 1998 that got horribly botched,” Ross said.

According to Ross’ investigation, during the 1999 trial McNeil was not allowed to say Nowlin’s name nor was he allowed to use her prior convictions as evidence. Ross said he hopes publicity with the Snapped episode helps prove Bart’s innocence.

“For the last 10 years it’s been a very local type story, but this was an opportunity to tell a much longer version about the story and that’s what it takes because it’s just so complex,” Ross said. “I don’t think anybody that watches this episode will ever leave with some question lingering that perhaps Bart did do it after all.”

“Because of this television program and all of the publicity, I am very, very, pleased that at least now the truth is widely known,” McNeil said.

Now, McNeil will appear in court on Nov. 12 where a judge will consider the motions for new evidence. It is expected Barton McNeil will appear in person with his attorneys from the Illinois Innocence Project as well as the Illinois Exoneration Project.

According to the attorney/director for the Illinois Innocence Project, Stephanie Kamel, nearly 6% of people in prison for serious crimes, murder, rape, etc. are wrongfully convicted.

“Society pays for that because we’re incarcerating innocent people and we leave criminals on the street to commit further crime,” Kamel said.

Kamel said the Illinois Innocence Project gets hundreds of requests a year, but can only take on so many cases because of the length of the process.

“One of our criteria is that we do not accept cases if a person has less than seven years left to serve on their sentence because you’ll see cases where attorneys have been working on a case for 15 years to get them exonerated,” Kamel said. “It’s not easy. I think once somebody has been put in prison, even when there’s exculpatory evidence proving their innocence, it’s very difficult for us to admit that we’ve put the wrong person in prison.”

Kamel said attorneys declined to be interviewed for the Snapped series and could not comment to WMBD specifically about McNeil’s case.

Tickets to Tuesday night’s screening at the Normal Theater are free to the public, with limited seating available.

McLean County State’s Attorney Don Knapp told WMBD his office could not comment due to it being “active litigation.”

Chris Ross operates a website on Barton McNeil’s fight for freedom called freebart.org.

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