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The American judicial system is founded on supposed pillars of justice and fairness, hundreds have been wrongfully convicted. With advancements in technology and DNA testing, many of these cases have been overturned. Exoneration is the hope, too, of Bloomington native Barton McNeil. McNeil was convicted of first degree murder in 1998 for the death of his three-year-old daughter, Christina.
Christina was found dead by McNeil the morning of June 16, 1998, in her bed at McNeil’s apartment. First responders initially believed she had succumbed to natural causes, but McNeil later called Bloomington Police Department asking for a homicide detective after noticing suspicious window screen slits and the window fan on the floor. McNeil believed someone had intruded the apartment during the night and murdered Christina. Detectives promptly disregarded McNeil’s intruder-by-window theory when they found cobwebs on the window.
The pathologist conducting Christina’s autopsy concluded Christina had been smothered and believed she had also been sexually assaulted, which is where BPD claimed McNeil’s motive did not line up. Detectives believed McNeil was fearful of the autopsy showing this information and that is when McNeil became BPD’s leading suspect. McNeil was charged and proceeded to bench trial, despite his numerous and vocal claims of innocence. In July of the next year, McNeil was found guilty and sentenced to life.
From the beginning McNeil has maintained that his ex-girlfriend, Misook Nowlin is Chrstina’s true killer. The night before Christina’s murder, June 15, 1998, McNeil and Nowlin were witnessed having a heated argument at Bloomington’s Avantis restaurant. Nowlin suspected McNeil had been cheating on her. The couple broke up after drawing the attention of wait staff.
There is little doubt that McNeil and Nowlin had an extremely unhealthy relationship. On top of domestic battery charges on Nowlin, Nowlin was known by friends and neighbors to be a very jealous and violent person.
Considering the intensity of their breakup the night before and Nowlin’s capacity to act irrationally and violently, McNeil immediately told investigators that she was responsible for Christina’s death. McNeil claimed Nowlin must have entered the apartment through the bedroom window and smothered Christina as a brutal revenge for their breakup. After all, even if Christina awoke to see Nowlin, the child was familiar enough with Nowlin to not be fearful. Detectives interviewed Nowlin, but kept McNeil as their prime suspect, probably in part due to the sexual assault findings and disbelief that a woman committed such acts. McNeil was not permitted to present evidence against Nowlin as defense in court.
In 2014, a judge approved a petition for Christina’s clothing, pillowcase and bed sheets to be submitted for DNA testing. Nowlin’s DNA was found.
Fourteen years after Christina’s murder, Nowlin’s mother-in-law (Nowlin had since remarried), Linda Tyda, was heinously murdered in Bloomington. Nowlin had been having marriage issues with Tyda’s son. The following year Nowlin was convicted of first degree murder and sentenced to 55 years in prison. McNeil and his supporters say this case demonstrates Nowlin’s disregard for life and the failings of the justice system for not catching her in Christina’s case.
Despite this evidence, McNeil remains in prison today. There is hope for him, however. McNeil’s case is now handled by the Exoneration Project and the Illinois Innocence Project, both of which involve an extensive and extremely selective application process.
These representatives filed a Successive Petition for Post-Conviction Relief this past spring. The petition details the Nowlin theory and discredits the pathologist’s conclusion that Christina was sexually assaulted with today’s science. On August 25, 2021, McLean County Circuit Court Judge William Yoder ruled in favor of the petition moving forward. This ruling means that the judge felt there was some new evidence which might make others think differently of the case. There is still a long road ahead for McNeil, but this ruling is one step forward.
A second hearing was scheduled for November 12 to review the petition.
For more information, readers can visit freebart.org, listen to the Suspect Convictions podcast, or tune in on September 25 at 8:00 p.m. when McNeil and Nowlin’s respective cases will be featured on Oxygen Network’s Snapped: Behind Bars.