3 Pennsylvania men have convictions overturned after decades behind bars in woman’s 1997 killing

PHILADELPHIA — A Pennsylvania judge has overturned the convictions of three men imprisoned for decades in the 1997 murder of a 70-year-old woman, even though their DNA never matched that found at the scene. However, they will remain in jail while a prosecutor decides whether to appeal. .

A Delaware County judge ordered new trials Thursday for Derrick Chappell — who was 15 when he was arrested — and cousins ​​Morton Johnson and Sam Grasty.

“This case should never have been prosecuted. These guys should never have been charged. The evidence was always that they were innocent,” Paul Casteleiro, Grasty’s attorney and legal director of the nonprofit Centurion, said Friday. Prosecutors, he said, “simply ran roughshod” over the suspects.

The three were charged and convicted in the death of Henrietta Nickens of Chester, who told her daughter in her last known phone call that she was about to watch the 11 p.m. news. She was later found badly beaten, her underwear had been removed and her house ransacked, with blood on the walls and bedding.

The three defendants – all young people from the neighborhood – were convicted, even though DNA testing at the time showed that semen found at the scene in the victim’s body and on a jacket did not match any of them, Casteleiro said.

He called the prosecutor’s various theories about the case “ridiculous.” To explain the lack of a DNA match, they argued that the victim may have had consensual sex before the murder, or that the three defendants had brought a used condom to the scene. ‘, he said. Yet Nickens was chronically ill and had known no male partners, he continued.

“They put out this absurd story and made juries believe it,” Casteleiro said.

Common Pleas Court Judge Mary Alice Brennan threw out the convictions during a hearing Thursday and set a bail hearing for May 23 to determine whether county prosecutors will seek a new trial.

District Attorney Jack Stollsteimer plans to review the case next week before making a decision, a spokesman said Friday.

Calls to attorneys for Johnson and Chappell were not immediately returned Friday. The Pennsylvania Innocence Project also worked on the case.

The men are now in their forties. All three filed pro petitions in federal court over the years saying they were wrongfully convicted, but the petitions were dismissed.