Illinois Innocence Project takes 1998 murder case
SPRINGFIELD – The Illinois Innocence Project is taking on a 1998 Bloomington homicide, hoping to exonerate convicted murderer Barton McNeil and expecting to get some help from new DNA evidence testing.
The Illinois Innocence Project is “in with both feet, in terms of giving this a thorough, thorough review,” said IIP Legal Director John Hanlon, who recently visited McNeil in prison. A “professional” referred the case to the IIP, but Hanlon declined to say who or describe their occupation.
“This was not a cold letter from Mr. McNeil,” he told WJBC on Friday. “This was from another professional who believed firmly that Mr. McNeil is innocent of this crime and wanted our assistance.”
McNeil was convicted of smothering his 3-year-old daughter, Christina. He’s now serving a life sentence in prison but has long maintained that his then-estranged girlfriend, Misook Nowlin, broke into his Bloomington apartment and killed Christina while he slept.
But Nowlin, now known as Misook Wang, was arrested last fall and charged with staging an elaborate plot to lure her 70-year-old mother-in-law, Wenlan “Linda” Tyda, into traveling to the Twin Cities, where she was strangled. Tyda’s body was later dumped in a forest preserve near her home in the Joliet area.
That connection was enough to prompt a second look at the 1998 case by police and the McLean County state’s attorney’s office. Detectives traveled to interview McNeil at Menard Correctional Center but later announced there were no new leads to pursue.
Seeking more documents
WJBC’s news partners, WMBD 31, first reported in February that IIP was reviewing the case. The IIP team includes Hanlon, an outside investigator, numerous law-school students, undergraduate students and Project staffers, according to Hanlon.
“Getting to this case is a long process,” Hanlon said Friday. “There is a ton of paper, and there’s more that I know we’re gonna be seeking.”
The IIP has received around 1,000 case referrals in its history, and the pace of those referrals is only accelerating this year, Hanlon said. Part of what elevated the IIP’s interest in McNeil’s case is that it was referred by “another professional,” Hanlon said.
“What we’re finding is that, not always, but very often some of the best referrals that come to us come from other professionals,” Hanlon said.
Hanlon’s specialty is DNA cases. Ultimately, the goal in such cases is to file a new motion for DNA testing on certain evidence, Hanlon said. Generally speaking, DNA evidence exists in only about 10 percent of serious criminal felony cases, he said.
“But we think it exists here,” he said. (If DNA testing is not possible, another IIP lawyer specializing in investigations would then likely get the case, Hanlon said.)
The public defender’s office is aware of Wang’s connection to the McNeil case and requested an audio copy of McNeil’s interview with WJBC in October.
McNeil and Christina’s mother were divorced when she was killed. Police and prosecutors said during McNeil’s trial that no one else could have killed Christina because there were no signs of forced entry. A pathologist also testified there was evidence Christina had been sexually abused – a possible motive.
McNeil told police in 1998 that he believed Nowlin was responsible, according to court records, including a letter from McNeil to a Bloomington detective.
Ryan Denham can be reached at email@example.com.