November 21st News Article The Vidette (ISU Campus newspaper) – Former ISU student Barton McNeil attends hearing in pursuit of new trial

  • Nov 28, 2023

Former Illinois State University student Barton McNeil was convicted of murdering his daughter in 1999, but his case was reopened when another suspect was later found guilty of murder.

A group of orange and black circles

Description automatically generatedThe People v. Barton McNeil hearing took place at 9 a.m. on Tuesday in room 5A of the McLean County Courthouse.

The primary focus of the hearing was to look at evidence that pointed towards Misook Nowlin-Wang — McNeil’s ex-girlfriend at the time of his daughter’s death — has been the true guilty party in his case.

His defense team joined McNeil, made up of attorneys Karl Leonard and Lauren Myerscough-Mueller of the Exoneration Project and John Hanlon of the Illinois Innocence Project.

McNeil’s defense team planned to review affidavits by Nowlin-Wang’s daughter — Michelle Nowlin-Spencer — and the wife of Nowlin-Wang’s ex-husband —Dawn Shannon-Nowlin.

However, the defense team’s presentation did not go as planned.

The hearing was overseen by Judge William Yoder. Yoder has handled many of the hearings surrounding McNeil’s case since succeeding Charles Reynard, McNeil’s prosecutor, in 1999.

Assistant State’s Attorney Brad Rigdon represented Nowlin-Wang.

The hearing began with an opening statement by Myerscough-Mueller, who gave a summary of the McNeil murder case.

“Barton McNeil is innocent,” Myersrcough-Mueller said. “He suffered every parent’s worst nightmare when he found his three-year-old daughter Christina lifeless in his bed.”

“What your honor will hear today is that Misook Nowlin — Barton’s ex-girlfriend — killed Christina,” Myerscough-Mueller continued. “The case before your honor is relatively simple as post-conviction cases go. You will hear powerful evidence of Misook’s killing — evidence that will probably grant [McNeil] a new trial.”

Myerscough-Muller went on to remind the court that on the day of his daughter’s death, McNeil was distraught and had called the police station four times.

Attorney Brad Rigdon opposed the defense, and said that McNeil had been proven guilty beyond reasonable doubt and that the defense team’s claims showed no violation of constitutional rights.

Nowlin-Spencer was the first witness called to the stand. She was asked a series of questions by defense attorney John Hanlon.

“[McNeil] was, at the time, like a father figure to me,” Nowlin-Spencer said. “He would never do any harm to me. He was just playing the role that he was in at the time.”

Nowlin-Spencer was then asked about her relationship with her mother, Nowlin-Wang.

“I would say I’m her full support system as of right now,” Nowlin-Spencer said. “She is my mother at the end of the day, and I communicate with her probably once a week just to make sure she’s doing okay. There’s just a lot of emotions and a lot of questions I have.”

Nowlin-Spencer then answered questions about Don Wang — Nowlin-Wang’s ex-husband — and his telling of Nowlin-Wang’s confession to him.

“We were just having a conversation about Linda, and randomly he — out of the blue — said, ‘You know what your mom told me one time?’ I said, ‘No, what is that?’ He said, ‘That she had killed Christina,’” Nowlin-Spencer said. “I could tell that he was in a very hard place at the time too, so it wasn’t that I didn’t believe him, but it caught me off guard.”

Attorney John Hanlon gave a summary of what has become known as the “paper towel holder incident,” which refers to a time in 1998 when Nowlin-Wang beat Nowlin-Spencer as a child with a wooden paper towel holder. The summary followed Nowlin-Spencer’s barring from answering questions related to it.

“Her mother hit her with a paper towel holder on her thighs and it left bruises,” Hanlon said. “Later, when she was at a mall, [Michelle’s] aunt noticed her bruises. Her aunt took pictures of the bruises on her thighs in the parking lot later.”

Hanlon went on to speak about how the Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) confronted Nowlin-Spencer.

“In school, Michelle was called into the principal’s office. A representative from DCFS was there and questioned young Michelle about her relationship with her mother,” Hanlon said. “The DCFS person saw the bruises and asked, ‘How did those occur?’ [Nowlin-Spencer] told the DCFS person that she had fallen down, so the DCFS person asked her if she was telling the truth.”

“At that point, Michelle started crying and told the DCFS person that her mother had struck her,” Hanlon continued.

The next witness was Shannon-Nowlin, who was asked a series of questions by Hanlon. The questions were concentrated on her conversation with Wang about Nowlin-Wang’s confession to him.

“We were in the lobby area, sitting and talking,” Shannon-Nowlin said. “He said that he and Misook were in a big fight and that she confessed to killing Christina. It was a very heated argument and she said she killed Christina.”

When Shannon-Nowlin was asked about the “paper towel holder” incident, the question was objected and sustained.

Nowlin-Wang took the stand next. She was transported from Logan Correctional Center where she is currently serving a 55-year sentence for the murder of her mother-in-law, Linda Tyda.

Nowlin-Wang was questioned by attorney Karl Leonard, to which she pleaded the fifth amendment to a handful of questions.

“I am trying to do my plea of the fifth,” Nowlin-Wang said. “I don’t want to talk about anything right now.”

A couple of Leonard’s questions were in reference to Nowlin-Wang’s interview with Detective Wykoff immediately following the death of McNeil’s daughter, to which Nowlin-Wang pleaded the Fifth Amendment in response.

After Rigdon expressed concern with the relevance of one of the questions with an objection, she spoke.

“I never killed Christina McNeil,” Nowlin-Wang said.

Objections were made and sustained to questions posed by attorney Leonard about the DCFS case, as was the same when asked of the previous witnesses.

Detective Steven Fanelli, with whom Wang had had an interview in February 2012, was the next witness called to the stand.

With Fanelli under oath, the courtroom observed footage of this interview which shows Wang discussing the background of his relationship with Nowlin-Wang in an interview room at the Bloomington Police Department.

Rigdon chose only an increment of the interview to show to the courtroom. McNeil’s defense team expressed the desire to show other excerpts of the interview that they believed to be incriminating, which was granted by Yoder.

At the time of the recording, Wang denied that Nowlin-Wang had ever confessed to him. Fanelli said that the interview was the last time he was in contact with Wnag.

McNeil’s defense team then showed their chosen excerpt of the video in which Wang makes a strong statement about Nowlin-Wang.

“If you asked me, ‘Don, do you think she had the capability of doing this?’ Absolutely, yeah, because she killed my mother,” Wang said.

In his closing argument, defense attorney Leonard said that it is obvious that Nowlin-Wang is guilty of murdering McNeil’s daughter. He also reminded the court that no forensic evidence tied McNeil to the murder.

“The point is there never was much evidence against Bart. There’s even less evidence today that we can cover in a new trial,” Leonard said. “It would not take much to outweigh the state’s case. And we know that the question of Misook’s involvement hung over everything in this case at every stage.”

“Just like we don’t need to prove that Bart McNeil is innocent we don’t need to prove that Misook is guilty,” Leonard continued.

In his closing statement, Rigdon said that the evidence presented by the witnesses and the defense team does not undermine the confidence of the original verdict.

“Two individuals, who are uncertain of when the statement was made, would disagree as to who was even present when the statement was made, and who gave slight differences into even the exact content of the statement,” Rigdon said. “Don Wang denies having ever said that. That is the first-level stop at any and all of this being something that would even go to the jury.”

“She was convicted of killing his mother. If there is anybody on earth who has more of a reason to shout from the rooftops that Misook Nowlin confessed to another murder, it’s Don Wang, because she already wronged him in the worst way possible,” Rigdon continued.

Chris Ross, McNeil’s cousin, said that Wang’s interview should not be viewed as more credible than the two affidavits signed by Nowlin-Spencer and Shannon-Nowlin. Both were under oath when they signed them, while Don Wang was not under oath during his interview with Fanelli.

Barton McNeil cousin Chris Ross in front of young statue of Abraham Lincoln who defended a murderer in McLean County a century and a half before

After the hearing, members of the community and two of McNeil’s old friends gathered in the lobby.

“I think Bart [McNeil’s] case is unique,” Leonard said. “We know who did it, and she pleaded the fifth when she was asked about it when she had the opportunity to deny it.”

“One of the reasons we believe in [McNeil’s] case is because we know who the killer is,” Leonard continued. “We have DNA evidence and we have scientific evidence showing that everything the state said about Barton at trial was wrong.”

A ruling was not reached by the end of the hearing, but is expected from Yoder within the coming weeks.

PAUL AGUILAR is a News and Features Reporter. Aguilar can be reached at [email protected]. Follow Aguilar on Twitter at @aguilarpaul788

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