Innocence Prevails: Philadelphia Men Exonerated After Decades in Prison for Murder Case

Chester, Pennsylvania – In a major development, three Philadelphia-area men who had spent decades in prison for a 1997 murder had their convictions overturned last Thursday. Recent evidence proved that their DNA was absent from the crime scene where an elderly woman was brutally killed. The three men, Sam Grasty, Derrick Chappell, and Morton Johnson, had consistently maintained their innocence in the murder of Henrietta Nickens, a 70-year-old woman who was beaten to death and sexually assaulted in her Delaware County apartment.

The exoneration came after years of legal efforts by the nonprofit Centurion, which worked on behalf of Sam Grasty. Grasty’s attorney, Paul Casteleiro, revealed that the state had failed to refute their DNA evidence and crime scene reconstruction expert in court. For the first time, instead of opposing the evidence, the state chose not to argue against it.

These three men were originally convicted of murder, burglary, and criminal conspiracy. They were serving life sentences for a crime they did not commit. However, Common Pleas Judge Mary Alice Brennan has now vacated their convictions and scheduled a bail hearing for May 23. The decision on whether to request a retrial, appeal the judge’s ruling, or dismiss the case lies with Delaware County District Attorney Jack Stollsteimer.

Vanessa Potkin, Morton Johnson’s attorney and director of special litigation at the Innocence Project, expressed her belief that the case should never have gone to trial. She emphasized that as soon as initial testing was conducted, law enforcement should have realized they were focusing on the wrong individuals. Potkin added, “Because they refused to do so, they sent three innocent kids to prison where they were locked away for decades, while the person who committed this crime walked free.”

At the time of their arrests, Chappell was 15 years old, Johnson was 18, and Grasty was 21. Now in their 40s, these men have lost a significant portion of their lives incarcerated for a crime they did not commit. The victim, Henrietta Nickens, was found dead in her home on October 10, 1997, by her daughter. The investigation initially focused on Richard McElwee, a neighborhood teen with a history of drug abuse, who was interrogated by Chester police until he confessed to being involved in the crime.

Despite McElwee’s confession, none of the defendants’ DNA matched the semen found at the crime scene. The prosecution’s claim that a green jacket found at the scene belonged to Grasty was also proven false through DNA testing. Ultimately, McElwee received a six-to-twelve-year sentence as part of a plea deal, while innocent lives were sentenced to life in prison.

The families of the wrongfully convicted men, the Chester Police Department, and Richard McElwee have not yet responded to requests for comments. The attorneys representing the exonerees criticized the prosecutors’ handling of the case, highlighting the need for a justice system focused on finding and convicting the true perpetrators rather than merely securing convictions.

This case sheds light on the flaws within the justice system and the dire consequences that arise from wrongful convictions. As the men look to rebuild their lives, questions remain about the true identity of the person responsible for the tragic murder of Henrietta Nickens over 25 years ago. The impact of this miscarriage of justice reverberates far beyond the individuals directly involved, raising concerns about the reliability of evidence and proper investigative procedures in criminal cases.