BLOOMINGTON — A dozen years into a 100-year sentence for killing his daughter, Bart McNeil had lost contact with the world and given up any hope that his conviction would be reversed, despite his repeated claims that police ignored evidence pointing to another suspect — his former girlfriend, Misook Nowlin, who was later convicted of murdering her mother-in-law.
“At the time, my life was at a low point. I hadn’t had a single visit from anyone in seven years and hadn’t made a phone call in over a year. All I had to look forward to was a hopefully early completion of my sentence of death by prison,” McNeil said in an interview with The Pantagraph.
But now represented by the Illinois Innocence Project, McNeil is encouraged that an expanded team of lawyers is working on potential new evidence that he hopes will exonerate him and reopen the investigation into the 1998 suffocation death of his daughter, Christina McNeil.
The new evidence includes the opinion of a defense expert who challenges the conclusion of former McLean County pathologist Dr. Violette Hnilica that Christina was sexually abused before her death. Authorities considered the molestation a motive for the killing.
A hair detected through new DNA tests on a pillow case from the child's bed links Nowlin to the crime scene, contends McNeil's team, and is expected to be part of a post-conviction petition — the next step in McNeil's exoneration effort.
McNeil contends that the bed linens had been freshly laundered and Nowlin had not been at the apartment for several days.
Illinois Innocence Project lawyer John Hanlon said McNeil's legal team now includes three Chicago lawyers who will assist with the complex case that involves extensive review of the conviction and possible implication of another suspect.
"You can't have enough good minds and enough people to do all the work that's involved in cases that involve thousands of pages of documents," said Hanlon, noting the unique nature of McNeil's case has attracted inquiries from national media.
"It's a very compelling story where the alternative suspect has already been convicted of an extremely similar murder. To this date, 19 years later, no trier of fact has ever heard the Misook defense," said Hanlon.
Citing a lack of any pending matters in court, McLean County State's Attorney Jason Chambers said he had no comment on McNeil's conviction that has been upheld by the Fourth District Appellate Court.
The efforts to revive McNeil’s long-held claim that Nowlin was responsible for smothering 3-year-old Christina were rekindled in 2011 when Nowlin was charged with the choking death of Linda Tyda, her husband’s mother.
McNeil, now 58, recalled his reaction when he read about the arrest.
“There’s Misook staring at me. I thought, 'Oh my God, if this isn’t the cat’s meow here.'”
Shackled to a table in an interview room at Menard Correctional Center in southern Illinois, McNeil talked about the connections he thinks prosecutors and police failed to make during their investigation into his daughter's death, including looking at Nowlin as a suspect.
Christina McNeil’s lifeless body was found in her bed by her father on June 16, 1998 after he went to wake her after an overnight visit to his apartment on North Evans Street in Bloomington. Authorities arrested McNeil the next day, following autopsy results that indicated the girl had been sexually abused.
Hours later, McNeil contacted Bloomington police and insisted that detectives return to his home to examine evidence of a potential break-in, namely cuts to a window screen in his daughter’s bedroom.
He also told police he believed his daughter was the victim of a homicide and identified a suspect during several interviews: “Misook Nowlin murdered my daughter. Go get her.”
Police spoke with Nowlin, whose three-year relationship with McNeil had ended in a contentious break-up at a restaurant the night before the child’s death. But the focus stayed on McNeil.
In an unusual investigative tactic, Bloomington police brought Nowlin to the police station and watched as McNeil confronted her. Nowlin denied any involvement in Christina’s death. (Serving 55 years for murder, she did not respond to a recent written request from The Pantagraph for comment on McNeil’s accusation against her.)
McNeil was convicted by now-retired Judge Michael Prall after a three-day bench trial in which defense lawyer Tracy Smith was barred from introducing evidence of a second possible suspect.
The judge did not consider Nowlin’s history of violence against McNeil and his daughter. According to McNeil, Nowlin was angry that he was planning to testify against her at a sentencing hearing the day after Christina’s death on unlawful restraint charges related to Nowlin's refusal to leave her apartment after police were called to a dispute between the couple.
The judge also ruled that child abuse allegations made against Nowlin two months after Christina’s death were not relevant to McNeil’s case. Court records indicate that Nowlin’s 9-year-old daughter was beaten with a wooden rod. A school official testified the child also accused her mother of pinching her nose and covering her mouth with her hand.
Former Heyworth grade school principal Aissa Frasier told Prall that Nowlin’s daughter relayed a threat she received from her mother: “She needed to behave or the same thing that happened to her sister would happen to her,” according to a transcript of the February 1999 hearing. The two girls were not related, but shared a bond similar to sisters, according to the Department of Children and Family Services.
“My trial was a lightning quick 2½ days. I was muzzled because I could not speak of Misook murdering my child,” said McNeil.
By 2011, McNeil was ready to throw away thousands of documents he had accumulated in his prison cell when the charges accusing Nowlin of killing Linda Tyda sparked new interest in his case.
Armed with a new tip from a Bloomington woman who claims she saw Nowlin in a storage closet outside Nowlin's apartment on Croxton Avenue around 3 a.m. the night Christina was killed, two Bloomington police detectives visited McNeil in prison. The information was not deemed important at the time of the child’s murder, the woman told police, because “all evidence seemed to point to Barton McNeil,” according to a police report.
McNeil said he is disappointed that BPD did not reopen its investigation at that time. The BPD said last week that the case remains closed.
But McNeil gained an important new ally — his cousin Chris Ross with whom he had not spoken to in two decades. The Illinois Innocence Project in Springfield agreed to take McNeil’s case after reviewing records compiled by Ross who also developed a website, freebart.org, to chronicle the murder case.
"This is about saving a man's life," Ross said of his efforts. "Our family hopes and prays for our cousin's freedom so he can live out what remaining years he has left in peace, good health and happiness, and that final justice can one day come about for the other victim in this case, his daughter and our relative Christina McNeil."
As he approaches two decades in prison, McNeil clings to his double-sided view of justice that goes beyond possible exoneration.
"I'm tired of excuses being made … This is about Christina. I'm not going to let justice be denied my daughter any longer."