BLOOMINGTON, Ill. – Barton McNeil and his defense team presented their case to a judge on Nov. 21 as to why they believe he is owed a new trial in his 25-year long battle to overturn his original conviction.
The evidentiary hearing was an attempt on the defense of McNeil in the case of “The People v. Barton McNeil” to admit new evidence, both testimonial and newly tested forensic evidence. The idea from the defense being that this new evidence would’ve changed the outcome of the original trial and therefore warrants a new one.
The original case was in 1999, where despite circumstantial evidence, McNeil was convicted of the June 1998 murder of his daughter 3-year-old Christina McNeil.
McNeil was represented by two separate innocence projects from the state of Illinois, the Illinois Innocence Project based out of the University of Illinois-Springfield and the Illinois Exoneration Project from the University of Chicago Law. Five attorneys represented McNeil, including John Hanlon, Karl Leonard and Lauren Myerscough-Mueller.
Before the hearing had begun, the defense acknowledged that the person McNeil places guilt upon and serves as the main evidence of his innocence did not plan to be present. Judge William Yoder resided over the hearing and said that the First Assistant State’s Attorney Bradly Rigdon, who was appointed to represent Misook Nowlin-Wang, would have the chance to speak with her. She later appeared before the judge and counsels.
Nowlin-Wang’s first husband was Andy Nowlin, whom she had one daughter with, Michelle Nowlin, now Michelle Spencer. After their marriage ended, she began dating McNeil. Following McNeil’s incarceration, she later married Don Wang, her second husband. Nowlin-Wang was convicted in 2012 of the 2011 murder of Linda Tyda, mother of her second husband Don Wang. She was sentenced to 55 years in prison.
When the hearing began, the first witness was Michelle Spencer. She was cross-examined by both teams, confirming that during the Celebration of Life for Linda Tyda, Wang told her and others that Nowlin-Wang confessed to him she murdered McNeil’s daughter. The McNeil team attempted to dive deeper into Nowlin-Wang’s proven abuse of Spencer as a child and her run-ins with the Department of Child and Family Services. Spencer had little to say about the matter.
When asked about how she was treated, she said, “I definitely do not treat my children the same, I can definitely say that.”
Spencer testified she is her mother’s only support system and keeps in contact with her once a week. She also expressed dissatisfaction with being in court for the day, as she did not enjoy testifying against her. The second witness was Dawn Nowlin, Spencer’s stepmom and Nowlin’s second wife. She entered the courtroom after Spencer’s testimony and corroborated her retelling of the events. She also said that during Tyda’s celebration of Life, Wang told the two, as well as Andy Nowlin, that in the midst of a heated argument, Nowlin-Wang confessed to him she murdered Christina McNeil.
The third witness was Nowlin-Wang, the woman that McNeil believes murdered his daughter. After numerous questions, those attempting to address motives and clear up facts surrounding the case, Wang had one response to the McNeil team.
“I plead my fifth,” she said. However, Leonard asked her directly whether she had or had not killed Christina McNeil.
As Rigdon objected, she said, “I never killed Christina McNeil so,” and it was removed from the official court record.
Misook Nowlin-Wang testified in the hearing on Nov. 21 and was questioned by Exoneration Project Attorney Karl Leonard
Nowlin-Wang continued exercising her right to the fifth amendment before she was dismissed and left the courtroom.
The last witness was called by Rigdon to present evidence against what the McNeil team was arguing. Former Detective of the Bloomington Police Department Steven Fanelli was called to make clear what video Rigdon was playing for the courtroom. In the video, Fanelli was interviewing Wang three months after he supposedly told Spencer and Dawn Nowlin of Misook’s confession. In the video, Wang told Fanelli no conversation took place. He said, “not according to my knowledge.”
In their closing argument, the McNeil team doubled down on the fact that Wang was not under oath in that video and he often “waffled” or mumbled through his words and was not confident in his answers. They also explained to Judge Yoder that they did not need to completely prove McNeil’s innocence in the hearing, they simply needed to prove through the abundance of new evidence that one “reasonable” juror would vote in McNeil’s favor and change the result of his case in a new trial.
As the crowd left the courtroom, many different supporters of McNeil gathered before media. This was including but not limited to his cousins Chris Ross, Grace Shaffer and Annette Harrison, friends of McNeil’s from high school and Larry Tyda, the husband of Nowlin-Wang’s victim from her 2012 murder victim Linda Tyda.
“I hope being here today that the people of Bloomington can see what’s going on and hope the judge, the mayor, the governor can see all this and hope he gets a new trial,” Tyda said. “He deserves it.”
Judge Yoder is expected to make a decision in the coming months, but if he does not grant McNeil a new trial the final order can be appealed and it would then be heard before the fourth appellate court, located in Springfield.