Courtroom showdown: McNeil will face woman he’s accused of killing his child

Bart McNeil

Barton McNeil was saddened in 2011 to hear of the death of Linda Tyda, a Chicago-area woman found in a shallow grave two hours north of Bloomington, Illinois, the place she was strangled and stored in a plastic tub by her daughter-in-law, Misook Nowlin, before her burial.

McNeil was also not surprised to hear that Nowlin had been arrested on murder charges in Tyda’s death.

Sitting in his cell at the Menard Correctional Center in southern Illinois, McNeil said, “now ain’t that just the cat’s meow,” when he read the news of Nowlin’s arrest. McNeil believed Nowlin’s arrest was long overdue—13 years overdue, by his calculation.

In 1998, McNeil was charged with killing his 3-year-old daughter Christina during her overnight stay at his Bloomington apartment. Hours after her lifeless body was found in her bed, he summoned police back to his home with what he considered potential evidence that the child had been murdered.

Small slits in a window screen, and trampled plants on the ground outside the child’s bedroom window, were among the pieces of information McNeil shared with investigators to support his theory. The physical evidence, along with Nowlin’s history of violence against McNeil and her own daughter were worthy of investigation, McNeil told police.

In his meeting with police, McNeil also recounted Nowlin’s anger at a local restaurant in the hours preceding Christina’s death after he told her their relationship was over. Police later spoke to Nowlin but kept their attention focused on Christina’s father as a murder suspect.

After a four-day bench trial in which McNeil was not allowed to introduce the evidence that made  Nowlin a potential suspect, he was convicted and sentenced to 99 years. With his appeals exhausted, McNeil settled into life behind bars and what he presumed would be “death by prison.”

Nowlin’s arrest brought renewed attention to Christina’s death. McNeil’s family members rallied and made connections that led to the involvement of the Illinois Innocence Project in his post-conviction efforts. Lawyers filed a series of motions seeking additional DNA testing and a petition citing a list of possible new evidence that if considered by a jury could change the outcome of the case.

Much of the information developed by the defense team will not be argued on November 21 when McNeil’s lawyers present arguments for a new trial. A previous ruling by Judge William Yoder limited the issues to alleged confessions Nowlin made to her ex-husband Don Wang and child welfare records related to her abuse of her daughter.

In a recent email to me, McNeil described his feelings ahead of the evidentiary hearing.

“Today, I don’t wallow in misery when nothing can be done to change matters. I don’t seek or welcome sympathy which should be reserved for a murdered child of Bloomington who found no justice in a McLean County courtroom, and for the elderly Linda Tyda whose life was the high price paid for Misook’s orchestrated child-murder getaway—Tyda’s murder an easily foreseen consequence thereof.”

When Nowlin is called to the witness stand on Tuesday, it will be the first time that she and McNeil will be together since 1999 when she testified at his trial during an “offer of proof” hearing to discuss evidence of her possible involvement in the death. The two met one other time—in 1998 at Nowlin’s bench trial on domestic battery charges accusing her of restraining McNeil from leaving with his daughter.

“Since that time – 1999—I’ve never again seen Misook. So, it will be weird seeing her this time,” McNeil wrote. His reaction to her anticipated denial of wrongdoing may be difficult to restrain, he acknowledged.

Nowlin’s former husband Don Wang and her daughter Michelle may also testify about a confession Nowlin allegedly made to killing Christina.

McNeil is realistic about his odds of receiving a positive ruling on the narrow issues. His lawyers are certain to appeal Yoder’s dismissal of all or portions of the petition for a new trial. Depending upon the outcome of a ruling by the 4th District Appellate Court, the Illinois Supreme Court could be asked to review the case.

Many more months could pass before a final decision is reached.

McNeil, now 64, has been incarcerated 9,284 days, the website noted on Friday.

McNeil’s cousin and champion of his exoneration efforts, Chris Ross, started the website to track decisions and potential new evidence in McNeil’s case.  On Tuesday, he plans to travel from California to Bloomington for the hearing.  Other supporters expected at the proceedings include former exonerees Alan Beaman who was cleared of a murder in Normal, and Curtis Lovelace, a former prosecutor exonerated in the death of his wife in Quincy.






One stage, two cases, 43 years lost

John Hanlon, Kristine Bunch, Steven Beckett and Patrick Pursley

Kristine Bunch and Patrick Pursley share a common bond, forged by decades in prison for crimes they did not commit, and their eventual exonerations that allowed them to share their stories this week with an audience at Heartland Community College.

“Justice Denied” was moderated by John Hanlon, former director of the Illinois Innocence Project, and Steven Beckett, former University of Illinois College of Law professor and defense attorney who has worked on wrongful conviction cases.

Pursley served 25 years for murder in a 1993 Rockford case. At his trial, the state relied on an opinion from a state firearms and toolmark examiner who testified that bullets and cartridge casings from the crime scene matched to a .9mm owned by Pursley “to the exclusion of all other firearms.”

Pursley recalled comments from the judge who rejected the death penalty before he sentenced the defendant to life behind bars: “you are a menace to society.”

Once he arrived at the Stateville Correctional Center, Pursley went to work in the law library of the aging facility known for its mold, poor water quality and roaches. He wrote letters to lawyers who might be willing to help with an appeal. He worked to draft new legislation on ballistics testing, despite his low expectations for success.

“Negroes in prison don’t get laws changed in the United States,” Pursley told the audience.

The legal documents and paperwork packed in boxes in his cell reached a height of six feet in the years after his conviction.  Success, Pursley knew, turned on passage of an amendment to state law that would allow defendants to seek a comparison of test fired evidence and crime scene ballistics evidence with digital images of ballistic evidence in a national databased, the National Integrated Ballistics Identification Network (NIBIN).

In 2007, former Illinois Governor Blagojevich signed into law the amendment drafted by Pursley and advocates outside the prison.

The letter writing campaign paid off, too. After years of writing to lawyers – “I only needed one yes”—Pursley’s case was accepted by Northwestern University’s Center on Wrongful Convictions.

In 2011, the Illinois State Police was ordered to compare the ballistics evidence from the case with the national database.  The conclusion: neither the bullets nor cartridge casings from the crime scene came from Pursley’s gun.  A new trial was ordered. On the third day of his bench trial, Pursley was acquitted on Jan. 16, 2019.

“It takes years and years for this process,” said Pursley.

Kristine Bunch was living in Indiana with her 3-year-old son Tony in 1995 when she woke up to a house filled with smoke and flames. Halted by the fire that was well on its way to consuming the home, she was unable to reach her son’s bedroom. She ran outside where she used her son’s tricycle to break his bedroom window before neighbors held her back from trying to re-enter the house.

Before leaving the scene in an ambulance, Bunch was assured that her son had been found.

But Bunch’s father delivered the somber news a short time later that Tony had died. Police came to the hospital seeking a statement from Bunch, a request her father denied because of her emotional and physical condition. Two hours later, said Bunch, investigators returned to the hospital to inform her that the fire was arson.  They wanted a list of people who had visited her home.

“Everyone I knew was a suspect,” said Bunch, including close family and friends.

After the hospital, Bunch went to the home of her son’s babysitter, a place she could sit with his remaining possessions.

When she went to the police station to answer more questions, Bunch was asked about life and homeowners’ insurance she may have carried.  The single mother who struggled to keep her car insured told detectives she had no other insurance.

“We’re trying to figure out the reason you would do this,” police told Bunch.

Bunch denied harming her child. But officers followed her every move – to the funeral home, Tony’s funeral and the cemetery.

“At that point, I’m broken but I’m angry,” said Bunch.

Desperate to get police to end their constant escort, Bunch agreed to take a polygraph test.  She again denied killing her son.  After she was told she had failed the test, Bunch was arrested on murder and arson charges.

A state fire investigator told police that an accelerant had been used, such as kerosene, jet fuel or charcoal lighter fluid to start the fire in two places.

At her trial, prosecutors told the jury they did not have a motive nor were they required to provide one for the charges.

The arson investigator’s opinion was backed by a forensic analyst with the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms who testified that “a heavy petroleum distillate” was found in flooring from the living room and the boy’s bedroom.

Bunch was convicted and sentenced to 60 years for murder and 50 years for arson.  Bunch, who was pregnant at the time of sentencing, was also told by the judge that her baby would be taken into state custody after birth.

Like Pursley, Bunch became very busy in prison.

She became an expert in fire science and worked three jobs to pay the $2,000 legal fees she needed for a local attorney to help her fight the conviction.  A letter to Northwestern’s legal clinic from a Bunch supporter brought new legal firepower to the case.

The lack of a signed order from the sentencing judge allowed Bunch’s family to care for her newborn son.

It would take 17 years-plus for Bunch’s case to wind its way through the legal system.  On March 12, 2012, the Court of Appeals of Indiana reversed the conviction, based on evolving fire science and undisclosed ATF evidence favoring Bunch that contradicted the theory the fire started in two places.

Bunch became emotional as she recalled the truth disclosed by fire experts hired by her legal team: evidence showed the blaze was an electrical fire and the traces of kerosene were related to a stove used by a previous homeowner.

When she walked out of prison, Bunch took with her undergraduate degrees in English and anthropology from Ball State University. She now works with the Illinois Innocence Project to help train police recruits about wrongful convictions.

Exonerations in the U.S. totaled 3,411 as of November 8, said Hanlon, quoting the National Registry of Exonerations, a national database that tracks wrongful convictions dating back to 1989.

The moderators explained the six factors that contribute to exonerations.

Perjury or false accusations account for 60 percent; official misconduct, 55 percent; eyewitness misidentification 28 percent; inadequate defense 27 percent; forensic science issues 25 percent; and false confessions 12 percent.

Advancements in scientific and investigative techniques, such as DNA testing, have helped identify and reverse wrongful convictions, said Beckett.

“The innocence movement has actually shown we can improve the criminal justice system,” said the veteran defense lawyer.

Hanlon cited legal requirements that police wear body cameras, interviews in murder and other high-level crimes be recorded and prohibitions against police lying to juvenile suspects as other improvements.

Still, Hanlon noted, Illinois is the only state with a Torture Inquiry and Relief Commission, a sign that more progress has yet to happen.








Horrors…what we’re willing to do for grandkids

It will be fun, they said.

All you have to do is come to the haunted house and show people around. I admit I have never been a fan of anything haunted, but in exchange for volunteering a few hours, our granddaughter’s softball team would earn a donation to help cover team expenses.

But my curiosity and anxiety levels rose after I scanned the volunteer’s handbook for “Terror on Washington Street.” Costumes and make-up could be involved and black clothing, from head to toe, was required.

On a recent Saturday, I left for the terror assignment, with my husband and son, two good sports equally anxious to see what fate awaited us.

Inside the gates of terror village, we were given a choice of characters who made the spooky magic happen. I let it be known right away that I was devoid of any talent to scare people—despite what many people say about me. So I was assigned to sit in a chair in the haunted reading room, while occasionally casting a threatening gaze at unsuspecting visitors.

Sweet, I thought. I raised kids—I know how to threaten people without saying a word. I picked up my costume – a flowered house dress and a black wig that transformed me into a scary witch of a woman in need of a hairdresser. A layer of white makeup and a few smudges of red and I was fully spookified.

My husband fared less favorably with his assignment to the haunted jail cell. Dressed in traditional black and white striped jail garb, he shared the room with props that never stopped moaning in despair. Our son opted for rat duty. That is, he was responsible for letting fake rats into areas of the building.

Doesn’t it just tell you everything that handling rats –even fake ones—was a job someone would choose over other activities?

My library duty became less desirable after I settled into my comfy chair in a dimly lit corner. One of the house managers introduced me to my roommate, a prop I named Howling Harry. A motion detector linked to Harry caused him to drop into view and begin shrieking in pain when a visitor entered our room.

My plan to spend my six-plus hours reading was sidelined when I attempted to remove a book from the shelves, only to realize they were screwed together. Perhaps a safety measure to keep terrified or angry visitors from throwing volumes at the volunteer actors? One unanchored novel kept me minimally engaged and served as a suitable prop for the patrons who momentarily noticed me before Harry captured their attention.

And there was music throughout the Washington Street terror chamber. Loud, scary music that, like the screams of the paying customers, never ended. Our room was filled with creepy organ overtures. Harry seemed to love it.

Attached to their friends by true death grips, their eyes closed and imaginations whirling, hundreds of people paid $15 each to be terrified. Now 30 years old, Clinton’s haunted house is considered one of the best in central Illinois.

I’m not certain how much the softball team earned for our volunteer efforts. I am certain I will be willing to write a check to the team next year in lieu of a night in the den of terror.  I met people dedicated to the haunted endeavors, so much so that they have returned year after year.

This grandparent is better suited for the concession stand. Popcorn, anyone?






It was a night, wrapped in a nightmare, that the people of Clinton, Illinois will never forget.

The evening of September 3, 2003 ended as it had begun: a quiet end-of-summer day, marked by the start of a new school year and weather warm enough to lure kids and their families outdoors. The children of Amanda Hamm were no exception.

Twenty years have passed since the frantic 911 call came into the DeWitt County dispatch center with a plea for help: three children were in the backseat of their mother’s car, drowning.

Crews were on the scene at Clinton Lake within five minutes to pull the children from the car as it sat in the murky waters of Clinton Lake.  The two boys—6-year-old Christopher and 4-year-old Austin would die a short while later at the local hospital. Their sister Kyleigh, still a toddler, would be airlifted to a Peoria hospital where efforts to save her would also fail.

The outsized tragedy was a tsunami of pain and sadness for the community.  Wave after wave battered those who knew Amanda Hamm, her children, and her family.  The fathers of the children and their loved ones were swept away in grief and sadness, too.

The three months it took police to investigate before murder charges were filed against Amanda and her boyfriend Maurice LaGrone kept people on edge as they waited for answers that would not be fully disclosed for three years. People wondered: Was this an accident or a conspiracy by Amanda and Maurice to eliminate the three youngsters?

Two teams of defense lawyers worked on the separate murder cases. A special prosecutor teamed up with a lawyer from the Office of the Illinois State’s Attorneys Appellate Prosecutor to handle the investigation and trials. Dozens of local and state police logged thousands of hours on the case that ended with verdicts three years later in two courtrooms.

Maurice was sentenced to life in prison on murder charges in the spring of 2006.  Six months later, a jury rejected murder charges against Amanada and found her guilty of child endangerment. She was sentenced to ten years and with credit for time served, she was behind bars for five years.

Amanda and Maurice have steadfastly maintained their innocence of the murder accusations.

The state became involved in Amanda’s life once more in 2014 when child welfare officials learned of the birth of her third child since her marriage to a Chicago man. The deaths of her first three children served as the basis for the removal of the next three from her custody.  The court awarded visitation.

In 2018, the three fathers of the children lost at the lake gathered at their children’s graves on the north edge of town. Now middle-aged men, they shared their common grief and how their lives had changed. Since then, Kyleigh’s father has died.

Much like the person who survives a horrific accident and lives to talk about the experience, the town has survived the tragedy at Clinton Lake. But lingering alongside the efforts to heal are the memories of what transpired. First responders and every person who knew Christopher, Austin and Kyleigh or their families recall where they were when they first heard the news. And they will not forget how their lives were changed by one fateful night.







The disappointment of a near miss with jury duty

Over my four decades as a journalist, I spent countless days and some late nights waiting for juries to return their verdicts.

If the vigil held all the excitement of a dripping faucet for me, I could only imagine the tedious nature of the deliberations. My assumption of what jurors experienced changed over the years as I took greater notice of the jurors’ demeanor as they entered and exited the courtroom at the end of their daily meetings.

What was it like to be closed in a room with eleven strangers, tasked with reaching a unanimous decision on something as serious as a murder charge, I wondered? Jurors are often reluctant to speak to reporters after a verdict, their decision to remain silent part of a pact reached before they go their separate ways.

In the spring, a letter arrived from the U.S. District Court for the Central District of Illinois that raised my hopes of learning firsthand about jury deliberations. I was asked to complete a questionnaire to determine if I might be placed in the jury pool for federal court.

My work as a journalist who covered state and federal courts and a wide range of legal issues would likely give attorneys ample reason to dismiss me from jury service, but I was eager to forge ahead with the process. In late June I was summoned to the federal courthouse along with about thirty other residents of the 16-county area that serves as a source for jurors for federal cases in Springfield.

Our diverse group assembled in jury quarters down the hall from the courtroom where we filled out tax forms for the wages and mileage we would earn as potential and actual jurors. A jury coordinator let us know that eight would be selected for the case. I was among the first group of 18 escorted into the courtroom for vous dire, the process that allows a judge and attorneys to determine if a jury candidate can be fair and impartial.

Magistrate Judge Karen L. McNaught explained that the case involved an employment dispute between a former worker for Springfield’s city-owned utility and Jim Langfelder, the city ex-mayor, based on a discrimination claim. The trial would last two days, she said.

Each of us was asked to respond to twenty-seven questions provided to us after we took assigned seats. If not the exact questions, the inquiries were very similar to those we answered on the previous survey.

The judge and lawyers wanted to know about our work, families, jobs, and hobbies. There were questions on the source of our news, newspaper and magazine subscriptions and internet use. And what was printed on any bumper sticks on our vehicles.

Had we ever been sued, served on a jury, or served in the miliary? Did we have close friends or relatives in law enforcement or the legal profession?

The round of questioning was completed in a little more than an hour, a short timeframe given the number of questions. Most responses were brief, a word or two or a simple yes or no.

Through their tone of voice, more than a handful of people let their feelings be known on certain subjects. “I don’t watch the news. Ever,” said one potential juror. Facebook was the major source of information for some. Few people read magazines and even fewer took a newspaper.

Inquiries on involvement in community organizations, public office and memberships in professional organizations were widely dismissed.

My responses were lengthier as the judge asked follow-up questions on my work and involvement in several lawsuits related to legal challenges filed by the news organizations that employed me. I also serve on several community boards that required some explanation.

The judge put everyone at ease, with a friendly manner of soliciting more details from people without being intrusive. She explained the jury process, with an emphasis on the absolute necessity of having citizens willing to serve.

At the end of the question-and-answer session, we waited for 20 minutes in an adjoining room stocked with refreshments for a decision on who would serve. Many with crossed fingers were looking for a swift trip home.

With no explanation and her sincere thanks, the judge dismissed me along with most of my group. A second round of vous dire would be held to finish the selection process.

My rejection, while fully anticipated for myriad reasons, was still disappointing. The sense of tension, negotiation and occasional friendships jury duty evokes between citizens continues to elude me. But the time in the federal jury box, albeit brief, afforded me a small taste of what it’s like to answer the call for jury service. And I was paid $115 for the privilege.

My research after the trial showed a verdict in favor of the employee and against the former mayor. The jury awarded the plaintiff $1 in damages. Oh, to be in the room for those discussions.








Former Heyworth teacher explains her role as “changemaker”

Dr. Sarah Bonner and the Heyworth school district went their separate ways last month after she became the target of a social media frenzy over a book in her eighth grade English classroom.

The book is titled “This Book Is Gay” and explores topics teens encounter as they navigate the road to adulthood: dating, sex and safe sex practices. The debate over “This Book Is Gay” went viral after a student pulled the book from a shelf and images of certain pages were posted on social media.

More than 80 people attended the school board meeting the night Bonner’s “involuntary resignation” was accepted. The reactions to the book expressed during the meeting ranged from views that the book was inappropriate to concerns that limiting students to heterosexual sex education is akin to “institutional homophobia.”

Bonner had a chance to address the board, behind closed doors, after the public session.  The educator who also teaches teachers at Illinois State University explained how and why the book came to be in her classroom. Over 100 different books were recommended by sources including the American Library Association, for Bonner’s class project. “Given the nature of the lesson compressed with a heavy list of responsibilities, vetting each and every single text for explicit details was impossible,” she explained.

Bonner goes on to say, “Should the book in question be available to students? Yes. However, should this specific book have been part of the 100 choices during this class activity? No.”

The book is part of the ALA Rainbow Reading Awardee List, picked by Bonner with a few others “because I knew students in my class had interests.”  Her intention, she said, was never to make students or their families “feel unsafe.”

The Heyworth teacher expressed sadness but not surprise for the way things played out. “Being an innovator in teaching means that boundaries, perspectives, and ideas need to be pushed.”

Children grow up and leave their small-town existence. Bonner realized years ago that preparing students for what they would encounter outside rural communities would require her to push the boundaries of the classroom.

“I knew I needed to disrupt traditional learning practices to embody the needs of today’s world. Our kids deserve learning experiences that prepare them for our world and not just our town,” she told the school board.

Bonner realizes “being a changemaker often comes with a cost….especially if you’re one of the only ones willing to take risks and think differently.”

The cost to Bonner was her job at Heyworth. The cost to her students was the loss of a gifted teacher who will no doubt use the unfortunate experience to educate future teachers. The irony that Bonner’s forced resignation came the same week Illinois legislators voted to withhold funding from public schools and libraries that ban books cannot be overlooked.

Here’s the text of Bonner’s statement to the school board in which she quotes Ted Lasso and Walt Whitman:

Thank you to the Heyworth Board and Administrative team for allowing me to speak this evening. If you know anything about me as a professional, you know that this is not the way I would have chosen to be here tonight. Twenty years ago when I was given the keys to my very first classroom, I knew teaching was my calling. And, while I’ve taught in previous school districts over the years, Heyworth was the place that allowed me to become the professional I was meant to be.

Throughout my time here, I earned both my Masters and Doctorate degrees with the help of district tuition waivers. I became the National Council of Teachers of English (or NCTE) Media Literacy Teacher of the Year in 2018 along with the national Outstanding Middle Level Educator award the following year. I wrote and published a book through Teachers College Press to further the teaching field. Additionally, I hosted and supported numerous future teachers from Illinois State University as they began their journey into the classroom. Lastly – most importantly – I had the opportunity to connect with the best kids I’ve ever worked with in my career.

Our community – or even our nation – may never know the gravity of what teachers bear on a regular basis. For me, I not only worked tirelessly on designing and cultivating meaningful learning experiences for my students, but I also worked hard to maintain healthy relationships with students and families, upheld weekly and transparent communication among all shareholders, contributed regularly to the junior high teacher team, worked a second teaching job at Illinois State University to better support my family, served as the Middle Level Section Steering Committee Chairperson for NCTE, wrote a doctoral dissertation, published a book for teachers, along with being a partner, a mother, and a human wrestling with being newly diagnosed with multiple sclerosis.

With all of this weighing heavily on my plate, I depended on national communities like the American Library Association and NCTE as well as reading communities like Goodreads to help generate texts that engage all readers with a vast collection of interests. The activity my students and I participated in last week was made up of close to 100 different books recommended from these spaces. Given the nature of the lesson compressed with a heavy list of responsibilities, vetting each and every single text for explicit details was impossible. Should the book in question be available to students? Yes. However, should this specific book have been a part of the 100 choices during this class activity? No. Simply put, the title was on the ALA Rainbow Reading Awardee list and I picked it along with a few others because I knew students in my class had interests. To make students, families, community members feel unsafe was never the intention of my decision making.

While I’m saddened by how the events have played out over the last week, there’s a piece of me that isn’t surprised. Being an innovator in teaching means that boundaries, perspectives, and ideas need to be pushed. When I realized years ago that our kids who would receive these amazing scholarships to these Big 10 schools were coming back the following year because they couldn’t adjust to life outside of a rural small town, I knew I needed to do something. I knew I needed to disrupt traditional learning practices to embody the needs of today’s world. Our kids deserve learning experiences that prepare them for our world and not just our town. However, being a changemaker often comes with a cost…especially if you’re one of the only ones willing to take risks and think differently.

London’s favorite soccer coach, Ted Lasso – the man who makes us all believe in the power of believe – said it best ”You know, people have underestimated me my entire life. And for years, I never understood why. It used to really bother me. But then one day, I saw this quote by Walt Whitman. It said, “Be curious, not judgmental.” All of a sudden it hits me. Of all those that used to belittle me, not a single one of them was curious. They thought they had everything all figured out. So they judged everything, and they judged everyone. And I realized that their underestimating me… who I was had nothing to do with it. ‘Cause if they were curious, they would’ve asked questions.”
As I leave here tonight, I hope you will remember a few things:

  1. Sometimes things need to break in order to rebuild it stronger. Encourage
    As you enter a space of healing, I hope the district and Heyworth community can find a place to listen and understand that you all want the best for our kids. Our teachers especially deserve to be heard and questioned in responsible ways.
  2. Remember to support your teachers moving forward. If I were them at this point, I would feel scared, unsafe, and paralyzed knowing that I could be next. Our teacher community needs reassurance that innovation is still supported and protected as time moves on.
  3. And, remember the good I brought to our kids and community by taking innovative risks in Language Arts. While I’ve been here, I have witnessed students stand up for other students with disabilities, fight against racism, organize trash clean ups, create documentaries that tell the untold stories of their community, advocate for safe spaces, strengthen their own beliefs, shape their own personal identities, and critically think about the world around them. With the work I’ve been able to do with students, I’m reminded on a daily basis that our kids will be the hope our future needs.


Monkey business

Monkey stories have made headlines recently with tales of monkeys disappearing from the zoo and a new Stephen Colbert segment on “Monkey Mysteries.” But left unexamined is the story of “a good little monkey” known by generations of young readers as Curious George.

My youngest grandson is a big fan of the curious little monkey. The struggles faced by the under-age primate – struggles modern society would deem appalling—go unnoticed by the five-year-old and other eager readers.

The story starts innocently enough in Africa with a monkey-nabbing by a friendly man in a big yellow hat. George nearly drowns on the boat ride to the big city. After dinner, he smokes a pipe before going to bed. The next day the little guy is taken into custody after making a phony 911 call. He is taken to a prison but manages to escape through a window by crisscrossing the overhead power lines.

A life-threatening balloon lift ends with George’s rescue by his captor. With George in the back seat, the man speeds off in his blue convertible to the local zoo, George’s new home. George’s fate improves in subsequent books by H.A. and Margret Rey after George leaves the zoo and goes to live with the man who becomes his best friend. The two have many happy adventures.

The original book published in 1941 and the series that followed has been in continuous print since the husband-and-wife team and illustrator Alan J. Shalleck created the popular and curious little monkey. Some monkey stories withstand the test of time, critiques by criminal justice reporters and kids who just want to see a good little monkey have a good time.

The elimination of cash bail: there’s lots to talk about

Illinois was set to become the first state to eliminate any form of cash bail as a requirement for pre-trial release when the Illinois Supreme Court hit the pause button on New Year’s Eve.

The decision to delay implementation of the law follows a ruling several days earlier by a Kanakee County judge deeming the new unconstitutional. The Supreme Court ruling allows all 102 counties to follow the same rules until a determination by the state’s high court.  There’s a great deal to be said about no-cash bail. For opponents of the idea, removing a requirement that a person pay to be released will lead to chaos in the courts and ongoing criminal conduct by dangerous criminals who should be behind bars. Advocates for the bill point to the harm done to poor individuals who risk losing jobs, housing and their reputations while they are locked up, accused but not convicted of a crime.

This week I joined several colleagues who have followed the controversy surrounding the Safe-T-Act and its no-cash bail provisions under the Pretrial Fairness Act for a discussion on NPR’s The 21st.  Host Brian Mackey also talked with a prosecutor and public defender who expressed their opposing views on the elimination of money bond.

Here’s a link to our conversation:

The Supreme Court has ordered an expedited process for the appeal, meaning a decision will come sooner than most but still not expected until after arguments in April.  Advocates for and against the bill agree that implementation of any version will come with growing pains as police, courts, defense lawyers and prosecutors — along with the accused– adjust to a system that allows more people to remain free pending the outcome of their cases.  Last minute changes approved by lawmakers will not be the last.  Appeals by unsatisfied players will follow as the courts interpret the voluminous provisions of the law.

The discussion on no-cash bail is part of a nationwide conversation focusing on criminal justice reform. As a country that stands alone among developed nations in its history of mass incarceration, the United States is seeing a shift away from jail and prison as a solution to crime. Granted the number of prosecutors who are taking a serious look at community-based resources and restorative justice measures is small, but seismic change often begins with a slow tremor, deep beneath the surface.

Jurisdictions across the country are watching what takes place in Illinois.





“Miseducated” offers lessons on race and the value of education

Brandon P. Fleming is founder of the Harvard Debate Council Diversity Project, nationally recognized for its success in introducing minority students to the Ivy League institution’s debate team. He should not be where he is today.

In his recently published memoir Miseducated, Fleming shares all the reasons for his unlikely success, beginning with an abusive upbringing laid out in all its painful detail. But Fleming overcame the odds by surviving the awful childhood, drugs and stupid mistakes that could have landed him behind bars, the missed dream of an athletic scholarship, and an intimate dance with death following a suicide attempt.

“I want him out of this school.” Fleming heard the words of the middle principal fed up with the 13-year-old menace. He walked a thin line between academic eligibility to play basketball and his side hustle of selling drugs.

For all the teachers and adults who failed him, there were a handful of others who stepped up to the challenge of a rowdy Black child and saw the potential overlooked by everyone else, most notably Fleming himself.

An injury ended his career as a Division 1 college athlete and forced him to leave Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia. A gift from his mother, a veteran with newly acquired GI Bill benefits, put Fleming back into the classroom where he discovered the concept of renaissance. He studied every renaissance he could find and reflected on what the great philosophers had to offer a poor Black student who admitted to his teacher he had never read a book.

And he developed a love of debate.

Along the way, he learned about education and the school system that had failed him and many of his peers. When the door to the world opened, things began to make sense:

“I realized that my approach to debate was wrong. My approach to education in general was wrong. I had been debating with facts and information that I could regurgitate but did not understand. Like a child trying to walk before he crawls, I was trying to argue before I learned how to question….I realized that traditional education focuses mainly on the status quo, on the surface of the soil-which allows the seeds of injustice to lie quiescent, until they sprout into weeds of social and political inequality. The aphorism attributed to Socrates started to make sense: weak minds discuss people; average minds discuss events; but strong minds discuss ideas.”

Armed with new mental strength, Fleming gathered students around Lynchburg who needed a mentor, someone to care about them, and peel back the layers of their potential. The climb was sometimes steep and difficult, but Fleming’s scholars absorbed the lessons of the Harlem Renaissance with the same enthusiasm that had altered the course of his life.

In the current debate over what students should learn about the history of race in our country, the narratives of Black students like Fleming provide the best lessons. Miseducated takes us to dark places no child should endure on the way to a future few can imagine. His memoir is an inspiration for parents, educators and students who think they know how much a child can achieve.

Kyle’s acquitted. What comes next?

It was a long three weeks of trial and an even longer three days waiting for a jury to return its decision in the People of Wisconsin v Kyle Rittenhouse. On Friday afternoon, the waiting was over.

The panel unanimously agreed that the 18-year-old is not guilty of murder in the shooting deaths of two men and serious injury of a third victim during protests last year in Kenosha, Wisconsin.

Looking at Kyle Rittenhouse, with his baby-faced cheeks, dressed in his Sunday best in court every day, it would be easy to imagine him in his first semester of community college. Maybe the captain of the baseball team.

It’s an open question, whether Rittenhouse will ever live such a life, or if it’s been lost in the shadows of the favorable verdict so generously awarded by jurors who swore to listen to the evidence and follow the law. Theirs was unenviable job.

The divisive nature of our country’s debate over gun laws will not be lessened by the lack of consequences this young man will face as a result of his decision to pull the trigger on the deadliest of deadly weapons.

Those who believe his actions were justified will point to his acquittal as proof that it is legally permissible to walk the streets with assault-style weapons draped across their bodies and fire if a serious threat arises. People worried that allowing Rittenhouse to go free will make the streets more dangerous are more worried tonight.

For the families of the victims, the courtroom battle and acquittal does not look or feel like justice. Surely the taking of human life–death by the crack of close- range gunfire caught on video–begs for recompense, the families must believe. Is serious reflection on how this tragedy occurred and the next one may be avoided too much to hope for?

And what lies ahead for Kyle Rittenhouse?

During the second day of jury deliberations, Congressman Matt Gaetz extended an invitation for an internship to the defendant. While the congressman faces accusations that Rittenhouse would be advised to avoid, the offer illustrates how people in certain political camps would like to use the teenager for their own gain.

Rittenhouse’s lawyers may have convinced a jury of his innocence according to  standards set by Wisconsin law, but the country will judge him on how he conducts himself tomorrow and the days that follow his exit from the courtroom. The teenager who took two lives may best prove his innocence and intentions by laying down the weapons and becoming a man he can be proud of when he looks into the mirror.

He could start by saying he’s sorry.





McNeil-Misook cases come to the big screen at Normal Theatre

Bart McNeil was in prison a dozen years when a newspaper clipping that renewed hope for his exoneration arrived in the mail.

With decades yet to go on his 100-year sentence in the murder of his 3-year-old daughter Christina, hope was a dim light at the end of a dark tunnel.

From the day he found his daughter’s lifeless body in her bed in 1998, McNeil pleaded with Bloomington police to investigate his former girlfriend Misook Nowlin’s possible involvement in the child’s death.  Authorities instead charged McNeil with smothering his daughter. The motive: alleged sexual abuse of the child by her father, an accusation he has denied.

In 2011, Nowlin was charged with killing her-in-law.  For McNeil, the charges against Nowlin opened the door to new scrutiny of his case by a team of lawyers with the Illinois Innocence Project. A petition filed earlier this year is a road map to the complex web of circumstances that potentially links Nowlin to the child’s death and the new evidence that challenges assumptions made about by police.

And speaking of webs, spiders also play a supporting role in this story.  Did Nowlin disturb their web when she allegedly accessed the girl’s bedroom through a window? That’s just one of the questions raised by the defense team.

Nowlin’s case has been a topic for several true crime shows over the years. But for the first time, a production team has examined the possible connection between the McNeil and Nowlin cases.  The Sept.25 two-hour season premier of Snapped on the Oxygen Network features  interviews with McNeil and Nowlin and a detailed look at McNeil’s innocence claim.

McNeil’s family has arranged for the show to be aired at the Normal Theatre in Normal on Oct. 5.  The 7 p.m. event includes a panel discussion afterwards with journalists who have covered the story (Scott Reeder and myself), forensic analysts and Chris Ross, McNeil’s cousin.  Admission is free but seating is limited so early arrival is advised.

McNeil’s post-conviction process is in its early stages.  His lawyers point to Misook as a viable suspect ignored by police. It is not necessary for the defense to prove Misook was involved in Christina’s death; they succeed if they persuade the judge that enough doubt and new evidence exists to justify a new trial.

With millions of true crime enthusiasts now aware of the questions surrounding McNeil’s conviction, the case has moved to the court of public opinion where the smallest details often matter most in the big picture.

Here’s a link to my story on WGLT on what’s happening with the McNeil case:


In post-conviction work, the unexpected can change everything

There are some developments in criminal cases that leave you shaking your head.  Things that fall under the You Can’t Make This Stuff Up category.

This week, a judge ordered the state to turn over about 8,000 pages of police reports to lawyers for Jamie Snow, who has been challenging his murder conviction since he went to prison 21 years ago. All the players are new to this case: the judge, the prosecutor and Snow’s legal team were not involved in Snow’s trial or the years of post-conviction efforts.

What puts the recent developments in the category of the bizarre is the circumstance leading to the thousands of pages of records.  Snow’s original legal team included a lawyer who later went to prison on criminal charges and a second attorney who died, leaving Snow’s attorneys with The Exoneration Project with no access to the records that may or may not have been turned over during the discovery process. No one knows for sure.

Five years ago, a judge approved a subpoena to the Illinois State Police and Bloomington police for records related to fingerprint evidence the defense wanted for its motion for DNA testing. In response, Bloomington police dumped thousands of pages of reports that far exceeded the information requested by the police. Snow’s new lawyers said some of the material was new to them and could be considered exculpatory.

Previous efforts by the defense to obtain records from police through the Freedom of Information Act were met with black pages of heavily redacted information.

But for the mountain of information inadvertently released by Bloomington police, the defense would not have had access to materials that may impact Snow’s future post-conviction petitions.

The state balked at turning over the materials. A prosecutor told the judge Snow’s lawyers are only entitled to the materials that fit the narrow scope of the original subpoena. The judge disagreed and ordered the documents released to the defense.

It is common for the most uncommon circumstances to be the game changer in post-conviction cases.  You can’t make these things up but when they occur, they can open new doors for people with innocence claims.

Here’s a link to a story I authored for WGLT on Snow’s recent hearing:



Illinois Supreme Court clears the way for Beaman’s trial against cops

Soon Alan Beaman will mark 30 years since he was wrongly accused of killing his girlfriend.

The Illinois Supreme Court reversed his murder conviction in 2008 and later he was pardoned by the governor. The state awarded him a certificate of innocence.  But Beaman has never had his day in court to ask a jury if they believe the Normal police and the prosecutors handling the case at the time deliberately ignored other suspects and evidence pointing to his innocence. The Illinois Supreme Court cleared the way this week for just such a trial.

The court ruled that Beaman is entitled to a trial on his claims that three former Normal police offices conspired with prosecutors to frame him for the murder of Jennifer Lockmiller.

In its 42-page decision, the court ruled 4 to 2 to reverse a Fourth District appellate Court decision that let stand a lower court ruling dismissing Beaman’s lawsuit against the town of Normal and now-retired officers Frank Zayas, Tim Freesmeyer and Dave Warner.  The Supreme Court heard arguments in the case in January.

Beaman was convicted in 1994 of strangling his former girlfriend, Jennifer Lockmiller, whose body was found in her apartment near the ISU campus. He served 13 years of a 50-year sentence before the state Supreme Court reversed his conviction. The state dropped the murder charges and Beaman was later granted a certificate of innocence and a pardon from the state.

The detectives, working with former McLean County State’s Attorney Charles Reynard and former prosecutor James Souk, ignored viable suspects and focused on Beaman during the early stages of their investigation, Beaman argued in his lawsuit. To support his claim, Beaman points to the history of drug use and domestic violence by another man who also had a sexual relationship with Lockmiller.

The lower courts erred when they determined that Beaman failed to prove that authorities lacked probable cause to prosecute him for the murder, said the Supreme Court ruling.

“That determination must – and can only—be resolved by a trier of fact, and the lower courts erred in finding otherwise,” the court ruled.

In the 2008 Supreme Court decision that Beaman’s jury trial had been tainted by the state’s withholding of evidence, the court found that Beaman’s lawyers were not told of another potential suspect’s failure to complete a polygraph test, his drug use and violence against his girlfriend.

“The fact that four separate pieces of evidence, acquired by the detectives at different times during the investigation, were admittedly withheld from Beaman could support a finding of incompetence, mistake or malice,” the court said in its recent ruling.

The court expressed skepticism about the state’s theory that Beaman killed Lockmiller weeks after the two had ended their relationship and he had moved back home to Rockford. The NPD timeline of the killing required Beaman to drive his older vehicle a steady 75 miles per hour from Rockford to Normal, strangle and stab Lockmiller within a 15-minute timeframe, and return home, again driving the high rate of speed.

Beaman also points to time trials performed by Freesmeyer that supported Beaman’s alibi that he was in Rockford at the time Lockmiller was killed, which were not turned over to the defense during the murder trial.

Former NPD Detective Tony Daniels voiced concerns about charging Beaman but was rebuffed by Reynard and Souk, who said at the time, “I think we’ve got our guy. We went as far as we can with this case,” the justices noted.

Comments by Souk about Freesmeyer’s work on the case support Beaman’s contention that the officers influenced prosecutors’ decision to charge Beaman, according to the ruling. In a letter to the NPD chief after Beaman’s conviction, Souk said the officer’s effort was “all the more remarkable considering his youth and inexperience. Beyond any question in my mind, this case would not have been won without Tim Freesmeyer.”

Souk’s letter is one element of Beaman’s argument that NPD engaged in a bad-faith investigation.

“As to Freesmeyer in particular, Beaman asserts that a juror could determine that he was motivated by a desire to advance his career,” said the Supreme court ruling.

Souk and Reynard went on to serve as circuit judges. Both are retired.

In their review of the dismissal of the lawsuit, the Supreme Court concluded that “when the reasonable inferences are drawn in favor Beaman, as they must be when reviewing a grant of summary judgement, a rational juror could find that defendants intentionally ignored, shaped, interpreted, or created evidence to support their conclusion that Beaman was guilty.”

Justice Michael J. Burke filed a dissenting opinion, which was joined by Justice Rita Garman.

Burke opined that Beaman failed to prove police lacked probable cause to charged him with murder. Such a failure is a defense against allegations of malicious prosecution, said Burke.

Beaman’s lawsuit now goes back to the Sixth Judicial Court and Judge Richard L. Broch who was appointed to hear the case because of judicial conflicts in the 11th Circuit were the case originated.

Beaman now lives in Rockford with his wife and two children.









Supreme Court rules on the difficult question of life terms for young offenders

Should children who commit serious crimes, including murder and sexual assaults, be sent to prison for life without the chance of future parole?  State courts have struggled with this issue for decades, with each jurisdiction crafting a set of guidelines that reflect the views of the local community and current state law.

The U.S. Supreme Court recently issued a ruling on a case involving a Mississippi man who was just 15 when he stabbed is grandfather.  As with most cases, each side offered a different version of the crime.  The defense cited a long history of child abuse, while the state portrayed the offender, now in his 30’s, as a cold-blooded killer who should never be set free.

Writing for the court’s new conservative majority, Justice Brett Kavanaugh opined that a judge is not required to make a finding that the defendant is permanently “incorrigible.” The fact that Mississippi affords judges the option of life in prison or a lesser sentence satisfies the need to protect a person’s Eighth Amendment rights, the court ruled.

Advocates for juvenile justice worry that defense lawyers will have a much harder time convincing judges that a defendant’s rehabilitation is relevant, based on the new ruling.

Illinois is ahead of many states when it comes to juvenile justice reform.  Legislators codified the rules laid out in a Supreme Court decision requiring judges to consider “the hallmark attributes of youth” that set children and adults apart when it comes to the decision-making process.  Judges who are reviewing the life sentences must decide if the person who committed the crime as a minor has shown significant rehabilitation during their time in prison.

I recently talked with Elizabeth Clarke, founder of the Juvenile Justice Initiative, and other lawyers about the impact the new ruling could have on Illinois cases.

Here’s a link to the story published on


Once wrongfully charged, he now helps others

Defense lawyer Curtis Lovelace has a special bond with his clients during the nerve-racking moments that precede the delivery of a verdict.

“I’ve been in that seat and I’ve been in that jail. I know what it’s like to sit and wait for a verdict,” Lovelace told me recently in a phone call on his way to meet a client at the McLean County jail.

Lovelace was thrown into the arena of the criminal justice system when he was charged with murder eight years after the death of his wife, Cory. Lovelace found her dead in the family home in Quincy in 2006.

News of the charges gained greater oxygen because Lovelace, the father of four, was lead prosecutor for Adams County at the time.  The first trial ended in a hung jury and a second trial in 2017 brought an acquittal. With assistance from the University of Chicago’s Exoneration Project, Lovelace was able to prove that his wife’s death was due to natural causes.

Love and his new wife, Christine, opened the Lovelace Center for Criminal Defense in Urbana after his acquittal. The couple moved the practice to Chicago last year after spending much of their time traveling Illinois highways defending some of the toughest cases.

On Saturday, Lovelace’s client James K. Day was found not guilty of murder by a Woodford County jury in the death of his mother. Unable to post bail, Day waited in jail for four years for his trial date. Day’s case was a difficult one, Lovelace acknowledged, because of the scientific evidence involved in showing Day did not set fire to the home he shared with his mother after allegedly killing her.

But Lovelace is attracted to difficult cases.

“We take cases where people insist they’re innocent and not interested in a plea deal,” he said.

As the trial date inched closer, Day’s family reached out to Lovelace in hopes he would take the case. The lawyer was impressed with Day’s claim of innocence.

“I believed him,” Lovelace told me. The commitment to serve as Day’s lawyer came before Lovelace had seen any of the evidence the state intended to use at trial.

People waiting months and sometimes years for their cases to be resolved often become impatient and despondent.  Having spent two years in jail during his wrongful prosecution, Lovelace knows what it feels like to wait behind bars.

“My experience gives me a level of empathy I wouldn’t have without going through what I went through,” he said.  As a lawyer, he understands that delays are often a necessary part of trial preparation.

Day, however, “was unbelievably patient for a person who ended up spending four years in a county jail,” said Lovelace.

In a year of COVID-19 when trials were few and far between in most counties, Lovelace handled four jury trials. Two of those cases were in Adams County where he won one case and lost another.  Being back in the courthouse where he once served as chief prosecutor was difficult, he admitted. “There’s a lot of memories there, not good memories.”


More needs to be done to raise awareness of wrongful prosecutions and convictions, said Lovelace. Innocence projects in Springfield and Chicago comprise a small circle of dedicated lawyers who handle the most difficult cases, including those that require an unraveling of mistakes made decades earlier by police and prosecutors.

“We do need more people involved because there’s a lot of people in our prisons whose cases need review. It’s one thing to get people out but it’s another to identify the issues that led to the wrongful conviction,” said Lovelace.




Time for media to revise the crime beat?

During my years as a newspaper reporter, I wrote countless stories about crime and the people accused of committing those offenses.

While some misdeeds were severe and ended with a senseless death, others involved a brief lapse in judgement. People accepted their punishment and moved on.  But the internet has changed how stories are circulated, leaving ex-offenders with a virtual criminal record that reflects little or nothing of their efforts to correct a mistake.

An initiative undertaken by The Boston Globe takes a serious look at how crime is reported and the consequences of putting every defendant in the same spotlight. The “Fresh Start” program gives people the chance to ask the newspaper to update the story or anonymize past coverage online. Each case will be reviewed individually for potential removal from Google search results or anonymizing names in the past stories.

It was not uncommon for an ex-offender to contact me and other reporters about stories with a shelf life so long it disrupted a job search or another opportunity in a person’s life. An easy solution did not exist at the time of those requests.

The arguments made by The Boston Globe that newspapers need to revisit their standards for crime coverage are worthy of serious consideration by the media.  The thorny issues of who is most impacted by crime reporting are part of the Boston debate.  I think “The Fresh Start” initiative is worthy of a conversation in newsrooms across the globe.

Here’s a link to a story reported on NPR’s “Here and Now” about The Boston Globe program:




Chaplains: the first responders for everyone

The list of first responders who are literally the first in line to help others during this pandemic includes medical personnel, police, paramedics and caregivers at all levels of every facility.

On another branch of the first responder tree are the chaplains who walk the hallways of hospitals and nursing homes, giving their time and compassion to the sick and dying and the medical workers who are all running a race against a devastating disease that knows no limits. On Sunday, David Proeber, photo editor of The Pantagraph, shared his wife’s story of courageous and selfless service.  Rev. Jan Prober is an on-call chaplain for Carle BroMenn Medical Center in Normal.

This week, Jan received the COVID-19 vaccination.  David and Jan view the vaccination as the most special Christmas gift. I agree, and thank Jan for her willingness to comfort those in need, despite the risk to her own health.

Here’s a link to David’s story:




Amanda Knox: Victim of a perfect storm

As a 20-year-old foreign exchange student living in Italy, Amanda Knox was unfamiliar with the plight of people wrongfully convicted of crimes they did not commit.

The 2007 brutal rape and murder of her roommate, combined with a botched police investigation and prosecution, changed Knox’s life forever. Knox spent a year in prison before charges were filed and almost four years behind bars before an Italian court acquitted her of murder.

Knox, now 33, and living in Seattle with her husband, recounted her story on Thursday in an interview with Lauren Kaeseberg, legal director of the Illinois Innocence Project.

The conversation was shared in a virtual fundraising event for the IIP.

“At one point in my life, I knew nothing, and because I knew nothing I didn’t care,” said Knox.

An aggressive media spread misinformation about 21-year-old Meredith Kercher’s death. Local politicians felt pressured to solve the salacious crime that was highlighted in media reports across the globe with headlines blaming “Foxy Knoxy” for the death.

“I never ever thought something like this was remotely possible,” Knox said of her experience. “It was a perfect storm of things that went wrong.”

Unable to speak Italian fluently, Knox struggled to understand authorities during more than 50 hours of interrogation. She was separated from her boyfriend Raffaele Sollecito, who also was charged and later acquitted of murder.

The legal process in Italy allowed Knox’s case to move through three levels of review in about three years – far faster than the decades similar cases take in the U.S., noted Kaeseberg.

Knox returned to the U.S. in 2011 after an acquittal by the Italian Supreme Court of Cassation.

Without the protections against double jeopardy afforded defendants in the U.S., Knox was convicted again in 2014.  The new charge created fear and uncertainty about a possible extradition.

“I was living like a hunted animal, trying to find out if I was going to get my life back,” said Knox.

Relief came in 2015 with acquittals for Know and her former boyfriend. Rudy Guede was convicted of murder after DNA linked him to the crime. He was recently allowed to complete his sentence with community service, a decision that has outraged Knox.

During her years in prison, Knox drew strength from her family and supporters in the U.S.

Her parents took turns traveling to Italy for the eight hours of visitation allowed inmates monthly  in the prison.

“My family never missed a visitation the entire time,” said Knox.

The impact of incarceration on families is one thread in the fabric of loss experienced by innocent people waiting to be exonerated, said Knox. The limitations in place during the pandemic have made a bad situation worse for detainees, she said.

“It is deeply troubling to me. I can’t imagine what it’s like to be prison right now,” said Knox.

Knox, author of Waiting To Be Heard, actively supports innocence organizations, a movement that did not exist in Italy at the time she was charged. Her work on behalf of innocent people “is a way to make the best of a bad situation.”

In 2020, The Illinois Innocence Project was successful in securing the release of five wrongfully convicted individuals.  The list of 17 exonerations secured so far by IIP represents 350 years of life lost behind bars.


Photo courtesy Amanda Knox

Pandemic scrapbook

This year will long be remembered as the year of the pandemic, a time when the entire world struggled to fight off a killer virus that left hundreds of thousands of deaths in its wake.

The stories from past plagues that have ravaged our planet were captured in newspaper accounts and family histories, passed along by generations of survivors.  Many details of the destructive virus were left untold.

The history of COVID-19 has been recorded far more completely.

The visual and electronic storytelling techniques have allowed us to save photographs and recordings of the firsthand experiences that break our hearts every time they are shared. Soon we will all know people who have overcome or succumbed to the virus.

A conversation with a friend recently made me think about how the youngest among us will carry their memories of the pandemic.

A mother of three young children, my friend told me how she has taken photos of life during the pandemic. Photos of her masked offspring, instructional signs in public places and the mostly deserted landscape are a few of the images she has captured and saved for her children.

I wonder what type of scrapbook – virtual or otherwise – children will put together as they grow older and the pandemic of 2020 grows dimmer in their minds. They will surely have their own vivid recollections of the months when life stood still. The day school ended in a building and shifted to the dining room table. Halloween parties at home and Thanksgiving without grandparents.

I have a photograph of my grand daughter on her special First Communion day. Her beautiful white lace dress and veil are obscured by the mask shielding her face.  Her twinkling eyes peering from behind the face covering clearly show she was still smiling broadly.

Those of us who have survived the virus so far will have stories to tell not only of the killer pandemic but a political war that raged simultaneously in our country. That battle has been laboriously chronicled for future generations, too.

Children are resilient and will recover their lives with friends, relatives and the activities that kept them occupied before the door to our world slammed shut. But the scrapbooks they compile for their children and grandchildren will provide the full measure of what the pandemic of 2020 really meant to them.  And how they survived.




Roush murder case in national spotlight

Christine Roush will be behind bars for 40 years for killing her mother, Teresa Poehlman in July 2017 in a violent encounter that played out in the wooden area around Funks Grove just south of Bloomington, Illinois.  Her friend Matt Isbell is doing a 12-year sentence for his role in the murder.

Christine was 22 when she was convicted. Matt was 24.

The Poehlman murder was featured in a recent episode of Snapped, a series produced for the Oxygen Network. I was interviewed about the case that leaves behind lingering questions for those closet to Christine and the victim, who was her biological mother.  The McLean County Sheriff Jon Sandage and his department’s investigative team, along with Christine’s friends, also shared their recollections.

Snapped producers were in McLean County several years ago to talk with me and others about another murder case involving Misook Nowlin.  In that case, the victim was the perpetrator’s mother-in-law, Linda Tyda.  As the show’s name implies, these are stories of people who “snapped” after a dispute reached the breaking point.

Here’s a link to the November 8 broadcast on the Roush case:




What will Wednesday look like?

The day after the final ballots are cast, Americans will wake up to a changed nation.

If predictions and polls prove to be accurate, we will elect a new president on Nov. 3 and the four-year anomaly of a Donald Trump presidency will come to an end. The next few hours will be a time of closing arguments from Joe Biden and Trump to audiences who are largely decided on their verdicts.

The contentious nature of the 2020 election season will go down in history for the stunning level of aggression and ill will exchanged between people. Families divided over political sentiments. Facebook connections were broken as people hit the Unfriend button with no intention of rekindling the friendship in Real Life.

But what will Wednesday look like?

Will the political placards now sinking in a layer of wet, fall leaves, be pulled up from the yard? Will the bruised feelings between friends and relatives heal before the Thanksgiving turkey is set on the table?

If Americans are looking for an incentive to set aside their differences, they need look no further than the COVID-19 death toll announced each morning after hospitals across the country tally the dismal score. The enemy virus still threatens the lives of young and old alike, and containment remains elusive.

It takes strength and energy to bicker with neighbors and loved ones. Everything from face coverings to mail-in ballots are worthy topics for snipes and screaming matches. But at the end of the day, the voting booth is the place voters’ opinions matters most.

As the bumper stickers fade and the flags are taken down by those hoping for a second term, Washington will slowly gather its post-election wits and begin planning for the future. Allegiances to a lame duck leader always weaken as his or her time in office grows short.

So it will be with Trump and his entourage.

With Wednesday’s dawn comes the opportunity to turn away from partisan politics and focus on the business of fighting a pandemic.  It’s going to take a united nation to win this battle.


Architects of mental health plan see more work ahead

Substantial progress has been made in the five years since McLean County began an overhaul of community mental health, but some of the toughest work lies ahead, according to two McLean County Board members who served as architects for the ambitious Mental Health Action Plan.

A National Institute of Corrections study requested by former county sheriff Mike Emery of the mental health care at the jail proved a tipping point for more detailed scrutiny of not only the care inmates received but how mental health care was delivered outside the detention center.

Board chairman John McIntyre worked with member Susan Schafer to form two committees in 2014 comprised of stakeholders who spent months looking at mental health needs and best practices to deliver them.

The 92-page plan released in May 2015 laid out five priorities for improving mental health care: collaboration between providers, medication and medical management, juvenile services, housing and crisis services. As part of mental health reform, the county board moved forward with a $39 million jail expansion, which includes a mental health unit staffed with counselors.

But treatment within the justice system “goes for naught, as detainees return to unstructured and untreated environments,” the plan concluded.  The board- sponsored report noted that without a better coordinated effort outside the jail to manage crisis calls and divert people from expensive emergency room visits and jail, no progress would be made.

The situation at the jail where inmates cycled in and out of the criminal justice system for lack of care in the community needed to be addressed on a larger scale, said Schafer. “The system wasn’t working. Something had to be done and no one was doing it. I thought, “let’s do it. Let’s get it done.”

The NIC report was an eyeopener for many people, said Schafer. “This was an outside group saying, ‘you’ve got a problem here.’”

Seventy-two people were invited to the first meeting to discuss the research needed for the mental health plan.

For McIntyre, his post-retirement work counseling and coaching high school students provided insight into the struggles families often face with confronted with mental illness.

“It’s a helpless feeling sometimes, if you can’t do much for people,” said McIntyre.

A chairman’s roundtable started by McIntyre brought stakeholders together to talk about gaps in services and solutions to fill them.

“When you get people to the same table, they learn more about each other and what they’re doing.  We brought the social service agencies, first responders and hospitals together and others for those important discussions,” said McIntyre.

Crisis services were expanded as local providers improved their collaboration with each other and law enforcement. A new crisis stabilization center for short-term residential mental health needs opened at Chestnut Health Systems in Bloomington.

The McLean County Board of Health also made major changes to its funding process to better monitor how taxpayer money was spent for community mental health programs.  New funding was allocated to boost counseling programs in schools and address youth suicides in the county.

In March, the county opened the McLean County Triage Center in downtown Bloomington for people experiencing a mental health crisis.  Although only about 20 people have visited the center during the months of the pandemic, the county is confident those numbers will increase in the coming months.

Still to be tackled is the issue of mental health services for children, a challenge facing many communities.

“Services for kids is a high priority item,” said McIntyre.

The county recently had no applicants for funding for an intensive outpatient program for children.  But Schafer and McIntyre said they intend to continue efforts to start a program designed to keep children out of the hospital and help transition them back into school after a hospitalization.

A shortage of psychiatrists for children and adults is also a challenge McLean County shares with many communities.

The mental health reforms in McLean County, like improvements to most community-based services, requires money. A sales tax increase approved by voters in 2016 provides about $4 million annually that is directed towards mental health programs, including the triage center.  About $1.73 million has been budgeted this year for mental health work,

The tax funding has also helped provide housing for five people through the FUSE (Frequent User System Engagement) program. A stable residence is a key factor in helping people reduce hospital visits but convincing some homeless people to accept housing can be challenging.

The benefit of housing for mental ill people goes beyond their well-being, said McIntyre.

“For every person you help, you save $350,000 in services,” said the board chairman.  Those savings, he said, can be channeled into community programs.

Hospitals remain a source of help for people facing mental health challenges.

“I think the coronavirus has presented a challenge for us as a society and has impacted mental health in a negative way,” said Chandler Brooks, nursing supervisor of OSF St. Joseph Medical Center’s emergency department.

The hospital has seen an uptick in behavioral and mental health visits during the pandemic.  The increase includes adolescents who are coming to the emergency room, said Brooks.

Carle BroMenn Medical Center started the year with a seven percent increase in mental health-related visits to the emergency room, said hospital spokeswoman Lynn Hutley, then saw a significant decrease during April and May.

The numbers have gone up since June but remain below 2019, said Hutley.

The inpatient mental health unit at Carle BroMenn “has stayed at near capacity even when most all other hospital services experienced decreases,” said Hutley.

Carle BroMenn will boost its inpatient capacity in the coming weeks when the facility opens its renovated behavioral health services area. Inpatient capacity will move from 13 to 19.



Here’s a link to Short-changed: Unjailing the mentally ill, a documentary I helped produce in 2014 with Pantagraph photo editor David Proeber.  We documented the crisis in McLean County’s mental health services and the work to make things better :












A behind-the-scenes look at the demise of Illinois’ death penalty

The abolition of the death penalty in Illinois was a long, arduous process spanning more than a decade. Former Illinois governor George Ryan took the first and difficult step in 2ooo to halt all executions until a thorough review of every death row case could be conducted. I recently talked with Ryan and Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Maurice Possley about their new book, Until I could be sure: How I stopped the death penalty in Illinois.  Anyone who believes they know the full story of how and why Ryan emptied out death row in 2003 with commutations of all death sentences, should read Ryan’s book.

Here’s a link to my story and the interview broadcast on WGLT:





Pandemic doesn’t slow progress for mental health center

People forced to stay home during the months-long grip of COVID-19 are facing a second health challenge as anxiety, depression and stress take their toll.

A Bloomington counseling center which serves those with little or no health insurance has expanded its services to include children and minority residents – two groups that often have difficulties finding mental health services.

INtegRIty Counseling has seen its list of active clients increase from 85 before the pandemic hit in March, to more 170 in September.  Like most health care providers, INtegRIty was forced to change its plans for 2020 after the spread of COVID-19 forced the center to close its door to in-person visits.

The goal of expanding to 3,000 appointments in 2020 and reaching out to black and Hispanic residents seemed derailed by the pandemic, according to the center’s founder Luella Mahannah.

The volunteer counselors who staff INtegRIty continued to meet with clients through a new telehealth program. But in June after an electronic records program was put in place, the center opened its doors to those who wanted to meet in person.

“We are still doing telehealth visits but many clients and counselors prefer to meet in person. For some people, it’s more appropriate for them to come in,” said Mahannah, who manages the center with support from her husband, Don.

Despite the limitations of the pandemic, the ambitious goal to expand services moved forward.

The center’s base of 30 volunteers now includes a Spanish-speaking counselor, a translator and four bi-lingual helpers who will work as translators and front desk support.

Cultural sensitivity training will help volunteers understand the needs of minority clients, said Don Mahannah.  A higher number of minority clients have sought help in recent weeks, he said.

“We’re seeing people who went on thinking they would be ok.  What we’ve seen across the country is that people’s worlds are getting smaller and they often have relationship problems. The phones started ringing in June and by July, it just exploded,” said Don.

For Luella, the ability to hire a part-time counselor to work with children, is a major accomplishment as the center marks its sixth anniversary.  Stephanie Hueramo also has a private practice, Trust Without Borders Counseling.

Children with unmet mental health needs have “a double access problem,” said Don.

“There aren’t resources available and they couldn’t afford them if they were available,” he said.

The shortage of counseling and residential mental health care for youth was cited in the McLean County Board’s Mental Health Action Plan, released in 2015.  The lack of affordable, accessible care for children was one of four priorities outlined in the county plan.

Having a licensed counselor for youth has made a difference for families waiting for help, said Don.

“We’ve had calls from parents and grandparents the last few weeks saying they’ve been on waiting lists since March to get services for their children.  We can get them in the next week,” he said.

A parent support group, “How do we teach our kids” is led by parent educator Christie Velella. The group meets through secure video conferencing to help parents with a variety of issues from behavioral issues to the return to school this year.

INtegRIty is seeking financial support from the community to continue the expansion of its services.

The center “is working to raise an additional $25,000 in ongoing support in 2020 to support the expansion,” said Luella.

More information on INtegrITy Counseling is available at the center’s website








Senator Durbin recalls DeWitt County connection

In his recent interview on the Legal Talk Network podcast,  Senator Dick Durbin’s recalled his time as a private attorney and his work defending claims against law enforcement agencies.

One of those claims was filed against former DeWitt County Sheriff Keith Long whose office was the subject of a series of investigative stories published jointly by the Chicago Daily News and The DeWitt County Observer in 1977. A county grand jury indicted Long on more than 30 counts of alleged misconduct but a special prosecutor assigned to the case failed to convince local jurors of any wrongdoing.

I was one of the Observer’s reporters who worked with the Daily News team of Rob Warden and Larry Green, both award-winning journalists. Our collaboration was featured in Time magazine.  Numerous awards followed.

In his interview, Durbin noted his work as the lawyer for an insurance company handling the claim by a former inmate against the sheriff.

The last time I saw Durbin at an event in Springfield, we talked about his connection to the “I am the law” sheriff, a reference to Long’s comment to reporters during an interview for the investigative series.

Durbin’s recent mention of his career defending law enforcement-related claims came during his conversation with podcast co-hosts Jonathan Amarillio and Chastidy Burns about the proposed Justice in Policing Act. The measure approved in the House would establish a national database for use-of-force reports involving police officers. The bill also addresses the qualified immunity provision that keeps most civil claims against officers from moving forward in the courts.

The bill has not been called for a vote in the Senate.

Here’s a link to the podcast:


More proof life on the streets is dangerous

Sad news spread across central Illinois recently with the identification of Todd Ledbetter as the latest homicide victim in Champaign County.

Todd also was the latest homeless person to be killed in Illinois.

I met Todd several years ago when he was living on the streets of Bloomington.  I was not aware he had moved on to Champaign. His behavior attracted media attention when someone covered his favorite bench in downtown Bloomington with a sticky, tar-like substance. Todd rightly surmised the meanness of the act was directed towards him and other homeless people who frequented the area.  The incident generated a community dialogue between downtown business owners and residents who live with the consequences of homelessness and people living on the street.

Anyone who knew Todd will admit he could be argumentative at times, a trait that made him more welcome in some places than others.  He spent time at Abundant Life in Christ Church where Pastor Charles Ahrends extends his generosity and open doors to everyone.

Todd was beaten and robbed by individuals who stole more than money. After his death, Todd’s friends held a memorial service to make sure he was not forgotten. He would have enjoyed the media coverage of their tribute.  May he rest in peace.

Church fire could not extinguish the memories

A fire ripped through the Clinton Assembly of God Church this week, leaving behind decades of special memories in the rubble. Lines of cars, moving like a funeral procession showing respect for a friend, drove slowly past the fire scene as the ash smoldered for hours.  The church was once home to a daycare that helped many working parents stay employed. People recalled the activities they attended there as young church members.

And there were weddings and funerals.

In September 2003, the Assembly of God Church wrapped its arms around the community and the families of three children who lost their lives in a drowning incident at Clinton Lake.  No one who saw the three small, white caskets carrying Christopher Hamm, Austin Brown and Kyleigh Hamm will ever forget their funeral and the large crowd that gathered to escort them to the cemetery.

Churches open their doors in times of great joy and sorrow.  During that awful week in the fall of 2003 and countless other times, the Assembly of God Church has been there for the community and grieving families.

A huge part of the church may have been swallowed by the flames, but the love the church has extended, and the affection held by its members, cannot be extinguished.



Kirk Zimmerman case revisited


Before a McLean County jury acquitted Kirk Zimmerman of murder charges in 2019, residents of the Bloomington-Normal area were captivated by the case against the State Farm staffer accused of killing his ex-wife, Pam Zimmerman.

The case caught the attention of producers with NBC’s Dateline program.  The June 2019 episode on the Bloomington case will be rebroadcast on Friday, May 29, on local NBC affiliates at 9 p.m.

The show included portions of a lengthy interview with the couple’s twin daughters and son — all teens at the time their mother was killed in her east side Bloomington office. Pam Zimmerman’s neighbor and the office manager who were the first to locate her body riddled with multiple gunshot wounds described what they saw for the national audience.

I also was interviewed by Dateline host Keith Morrison for the program known for its focus on true crime. What struck me most about Dateline’s work on the Zimmerman story was the time they invested in learning about the case and the people involved. Courtroom footage from Zimmerman’s trial was available because a Dateline team was at the trial shooting video and taking exhaustive notes.

The interview process differed from the in-and-out style of most journalists.  I was in front of the cameras for most of the afternoon as Morrison, followed by producer Cassandra Marshall, quizzed me about the case. Most of those questions were based on their extensive knowledge of the case rather than written notes.

The second broadcast of the Bloomington case will also be reminder of all that was lost with the death of Pam Zimmerman, a dedicated mother and talented businesswoman who was loved and admired by those who knew her best.  The questions surrounding her death — why someone would want her dead and the likelihood of holding someone accountable for her death– remain unanswered.

If you missed the first run of the Dateline segment on the death of Pam Zimmerman and the long legal process against her former husband, it’s worth tuning in Friday night.


Death by pandemic a new worry for inmates

State prisons are among the places the coronavirus is spreading in our country. With testing happening on a limited basis and the obvious inability to social distance between inmates and staff, the novel virus has a strong foothold in penal institutions. Lawyers for inmates have filed lawsuits challenging the continued incarceration of medically vulnerable, elderly and low-level offenders.

Lawyers for inmates who have pending innocence claims have added a basis for requesting release of their clients: the possibility that an innocent person could die during the pandemic before their claim was resolved.

Here’s a link to the story I recently authored for WGLT on this issue:



How the internet has spread the stories behind wrongful convictions

The list of persons wrongfully convicted in the U.S. continues to grow.  Our criminal justice system is among the best in the world but it is not perfect. Any system run by humans has its share of errors and the justice system is no exception.  The ability of the internet to share information has allowed defendants to bring their stories to the world. A judicial process that mostly takes places before a nearly empty courtroom is now detailed online — complete with supporting documents and testimony. Podcasts, websites and audio recordings from defendants arguing their cases from behind bars all tell the story of those with innocence claims. Criminal justice researchers consider the internet a game changer for many defendants.

I recently wrote a piece for WGLT on how the internet has impacted post-conviction cases.  Here’s a link to the story.  As always, feedback is welcome.

Virus coverage overshadows most news as reporters become essential workers

Over the past two months, coverage of most news has taken a backseat to what’s going on with COVID-19, the novel virus that has claimed thousands of lives across the globe.  News outlets are struggling to keep up with the work of sharing the most updated news with an anxious public.  I recently posted my thoughts on Facebook.  Here’s a link to why support of journalism is so important:


Sex offender registry holds many stories

The names and faces behind the nearly one million women, men and children on the nation’s sex offender registry represent untold stories of shattered lives left behind by the harm suffered by victims and their families as well as those whose crimes are posted for public display.

Women Against Registry is a St. Louis-area group of advocates who have taken on the task of supporting registrants — an unlikely cause in the minds of many people.  Last week I accompanied three members of the group to the Bloomington Police Department as they supported Charles Henderson, an 18-year registrant on the list, in his dispute with police.  His story illustrates the challenges of registrants as they navigate a world of assumptions by people who do not know their story.  To be clear, victims of sex crimes deserve justice and understanding.  But the devastation of such crimes often goes beyond the consequences to victims and their families.

Here’s a link to the story published on WGLT :

Tackling the tough issue of youth violence

The Bloomington-Normal area reported more than 50 incidents of gunfire in 2019.

Teens and young adults were involved in many of those cases.  I recently interviewed local youth minister Andrew Held and McLean County Public Defender Carla Barnes about their work in assessing what’s gone wrong in the lives of these young people.  Both are involved in efforts to move would-be offenders of gun laws to a path away from the criminal justice system.

Here’s a link to WGLT’s Sound Ideas segment:

When women come home

The challenges facing women when they return home from jail and prison are complex and long lasting. An event sponsored recently by the Women’s Justice Initiative explored the reasons women find themselves behind bars and what can be done to help them start over.  Much is known about the differences between incarcerated men and women — nearly all women have suffered some form of sexual or physical abuse –but what can be done to deflect them from the pathway to prison is an ongoing challenge. Work by Deanne Benos and Alyssa Benedict, co-founders of the WJI, has educated players in the criminal justice system, women at risk of going to jail and the public about the root causes of the criminal activity that divides families and cripples a woman’s chance to succeed. Here’s a link to a story I authored for WGLT on the meeting:

Disrupting the pathway to prison

Rica’s story enters new phase with her father’s arrest

The story surrounding 8-year old Rica Rountree’s death continued this week wit the arrest of her father Richard Rountree.  He is charged with child endangerment to failing to protect her from the ongoing abuse he knew was being perpetrated on the child by his girlfriend Cindy Baker.  The arrest followed an emotional rally last week organized by Rica’s mother Ann Rountree, who clutched an urn holding Rica’s ashes as she spoke to supporters. Here’s a link to the story on Richard Rountree’s arrest authored by WGLT Content Editor Ryan Denham:

Richard Rountree arrested

Yet another tragic child death case

Even the most seasoned crime reporters cannot escape the recurring memories of certain autopsy photos and the story that comes along with them.  When the images depict a child — abused and tortured to the point of death– the time between viewing and a lessening impact on the memory can be longer than usual.

Such was the recent case I covered for WGLT involving the January 2019 death of Rica Rountree. A jury convicted Cindy Baker, the girlfriend of the 8-year-old victim’s father, of murder, aggravated battery of a child and child endangerment. A decision is expected shortly on potential charges against the father, Richard Rountree, who is shown on cell phone videos forcing the child to stand on her head as part of the couple’s bizarre and ongoing corporal punishment.

Before the trial, I collaborated with WGLT’s digital content editor Ryan Denham on an investigative piece on how Rica came to be in such a bad and dangerous place that eventually turned deadly. Here are links to the initial story and some of the trial coverage.  Comments welcome.

My interest in the criminal justice system continued….

after my June 2019 retirement from full-time journalism. Through my work as a correspondent with WGLT in Normal I have the opportunity to delve into those stories that make people think about how the system works and in some cases, fails.  The public’s knowledge of the courts and criminal justice system is often limited to what they know about a specific case, perhaps their own.  But beyond the day to day rulings and sentencings is a complex machine which never stops grinding and sifting the intricacies of the legal process.   Even the smallest tweak affects all layers of the legal system from how many people are arrested, who stays in jail and for how long to the size of the nation’s incarceration rate, still at a staggering two million inmates.

On October 23, Dr. David Olson presented a program to the Illinois Probation and Court Services Association on why data is an important tool in the work of probation officers.

Olsen’s news that arrests, crimes rates and the prison population are all down in Illinois seemed to surprise some probation officers in the room. Olson’s point?  When it comes to crime, the public’s perception is that things are getting worse, not better.  He included elected officials among those with that mistaken idea. Here’s a story I wrote for WGLT on the conference and Olson’s insightful research on what’s happening in the criminal justice arena in Illinois:

Failing Rica is a story I co-authored with WGLT’s Digital Content Director Ryan Denham:…/failing-rica-b-n-girls-death-exposes-holes-states-child -protection-system