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SPECIAL REPORT: Bart McNeil hopes new evidence in ‘98 death of a toddler will lead to exoneration

Published: May. 9, 2022 at 9:37 PM CDT
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McLean County IL (Heart of Illinois ABC) - A Bloomington man has spent the last 24 years fighting to prove his innocence in the death of his daughter from inside Illinois prisons. It wasn’t until 2002 when his ex-girlfriend was convicted of a separate murder that his plea gained momentum and attention.

On Thursday, May 12th, he hopes new evidence will prove to the justice system that he did not kill his 3-year-old little girl in 1998.

Christina McNeil
Christina McNeil(Heart of Illinois ABC)

Jenise Rebholz was able to get access inside the Pinckneyville Prison to talk to Barton McNeil about the new evidence.

This is a case we’ve followed for more than two decades. It was June 16th 1998 when Barton McNeil went to wake up his daughter, Christina, only to find her lying in bed lifeless and cold.

Christina’s cause of death is declared as asphyxiation by smothering.

In the hours and days following, Bart would call police back to the scene begging them to investigate a possible break-in through the bedroom window, after he says he noticed what he believed to be tampering to the screen.

The night before Christina’s death, Bart spent the early evening fighting with his ex-girlfriend Misook Nowlin at Avanti’s before leaving to get his daughter.

He pleaded with police to investigate Misook for Christina’s death.

The only arrest his plea would lead to was his own.

Now 24 years later, Bart tells Jenise Rebholz inside the walls of the Pinckneyville Prison what he recalls from that week, and the turning point in his prison sentence.

He says his relationship with Misook was tumultuous.

Misook was charged with domestic battery against him and Christina a few months prior, and her sentencing was the day after Christina’s death.

“She viewed Christina as an obstacle in her access to me,” said Bart.

He says Christina slept in his bed when she was there, he would sleep on the couch.

Several hours after putting Christina to bed that night, he heard something from the bedroom. He looked inside to see her sitting up, saying “Michelle”. That’s Misook’s daughter.

“It was very bizarre, she was acting like she just saw or was just in the presence of Michelle,” said Bart.

He says he put her back to sleep just after midnight. The next time he would see her, she’s dead.

At his trial, a motion was filed blocking Misook’s name from being mentioned, preventing Bart and his public defender any chance to provide an alternate theory to how Christina died.

“I almost fired him and represented myself at my trial, I was this close” said Bart.

Prosecutors pushed the narrative that Bart killed his daughter to cover up sexual abusing her, and the window couldn’t have been broken into because there were spider webs around the edge, despite holes in the screen.

“You can see it’s completely unlatched, it’s a little bit bent, you can see sunlight coming through,” said Bart as he showed crime scene photographs from 1998.

Bart’s landlord testified that he walked past that window regularly and never saw holes. Police officers admit the screen was not properly in its track.

Crime video at the scene would show just how easily it falls out.

“There would have been DNA on the tips of those strands,” said McNeil.

Despite the statements, Bart is found guilty in his bench trial and sentenced to natural life in prison.

Transcripts show Bart’s frustration about the information not included in his trial, like Misook’s violent past with Bart and Christina, A DCFS investigation after hitting her own daughter Michelle, anger management and even a lie detector test.

McNeil Nowlin
McNeil Nowlin(Heart of Illinois ABC)

It’s something Bart’s cousin Chris Ross claims are part of several Brady Violations, defined as when prosecutors fail to perform heir constitutional duty to turn over helpful evidence.

“Misook was convicted of smothering her daughter three months after Christina was found smothered to death. Bart’s attorney was never avail to that information. Mclean County judiciously decided we will not convict Misook until a month after we’ve convicted Bart,” said Chris Ross.

Jenise Rebholz called Bart’s public defender from 1999, Tracy Smith, and while he declined a formal interview, he says he stands by his work, saying he worked with what he had at the time. We also reached out to Bart’s ex-wife and mother of Christina, Tita McNeil. She says she doesn’t keep up with Bart’s court proceedings, but her friends do share updates sometimes. Jenise asked her if she thought Bart killed their daughter, or if she was suspicious of Misook, she didn’t want her share her thoughts.

As for former coworker of Bart and Misook, Jeff Boyer, says she was known for her quick temper.

“Knowing her in the times that I was with him, where she kind of blew up or kind of got agitated real easily, I guess I just kinda of dismissed it as her being crazy,” said Boyer.

Appeals were filed for a new sentence, even a new trial.

In 2002, Bart’s sentence was changed from natural life to 100 years. He predicted that day, Misook would kill someone if she wasn’t arrested.

Nine years later, that’s exactly what happened.

Misook arrested for murder
Misook arrested for murder(Heart of Illinois ABC)

The death of 7-year-old Linda Tyda in September 2011, Misook’s Mother-in-law, became the turning point in Bart’s efforts to prove his innocence.

“I get an envelope from my buddy and I open the envelope and it’s a front page article... and there’s Misook’s picture on it and it said ‘Bloomington woman charged with murder’ and I’m like... oh my god,” said Bart.

Just a few months later, Bart’s case is picked up by the Illinois Innocence Project and the Exoneration Project. He receives that news on January 11th, Christina’s birthday.

“For anyone to take the time like the Innocence Project have to go through Bart’s discovery documents and trial transcripts, there’s no way you come out of that process not believing in Bart’s innocence,” said Ross.

Within two years the new legal team was granted the ability to have new dna testing on the bedding and bring new experts to look into the case. This is the focus of Bart’s court proceedings this Thursday, May 12th.

Much of this new information is being pushed to disprove evidence presented in 1999, as modern forensics disputes it.

This includes the claim that Christina was molested before her death. At the original trial, Dr. Violette Hnilica testified that swelling on the young girl’s genitals would suggest sexual abuse. However, there was no internal evidence for that claim.

Dr. Nancy Harper with the University of Minnesota Children’s Hospital says Dr. Hnilica’s claims are scientifically inaccurate and baseless.

Some of the potentially impactful pieces of evidence is DNA testing verifing the hair of Misook Nowlin on the death bed of Christina and her DNA on the bedsheets and pillowcases.

This receipt shows Bart took his laundry to be cleaned and was picked up the morning of June 15th because he knew Christina would be sleeping there.

“On July 15th, I picked up my laundry from the wash laundry service, which included this same bed sheet... touch DNA does not survive the laundering process. Touch DNA is not transferable from one item to another through casual contact. Those are my understanding from experts in the field of that whole touch DNA presence,” said McNeil.

In the 60-page petition for post-conviction relief, Bart’s team draws atention to the similarities in the death of Christina and Misook’s killing of her Mother-in-law.

Both cases came on the heels of relationship troubles, Bart ended his relationship with Misook just hours before Christina’s death.

Following the death of Linda Tyda, Misook wrote a letter to her daughter Michelle saying she regretted the killing, but her husband’s affair with Linda’s coworker drove her crazy.

Coming through the documents of this case, one theme was very apparent, people involved with the investigation and trial want nothing to do with it anymore.

People we reached out to include McNeil’s public defender, Christina’s mother, the judge, detectives and more.

Barton McNeil will travel to McLean County court on Thursday, May 12th. Follow the Facebook page of Jenise Rebholz for updates and more.

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