New DNA tests cast doubt on convictions in decades-old murder

Family photo
From left, Samuel Grasty, Derrick Chappell and Morton Johnson in undated family photographs.

In 1997, 70-year-old Henrietta Nickens died after she was beaten in the one-bedroom apartment where she lived alone in the Philadelphia suburbs. There was evidence she may have been sexually assaulted.

Authorities accused a group of teens and young men, most of whom are Black, in the killing, alleging they broke into Nickens’s home, robbed her of $30 and then brutally hit her and left her to die. One had dated Nickens’s granddaughter.

Three of the accused have always maintained their innocence, even as they have spent more than half of their lives behind bars. Now, attorneys for the men say newly tested DNA evidence shows that the trio was wrongly accused and strongly suggests a stunning conclusion: A yet unidentified man is the true culprit.

The attorneys say the case has striking parallels to the infamous 1989 rape of a Central Park jogger, in which a group of Black and brown teens were charged and later exonerated in a case that became a glaring example of racial bias in the justice system. The attorneys are hoping for the same outcome in the Pennsylvania case.

Attorneys for the national Innocence Project, the Pennsylvania Innocence Project and Centurion, a group that works on innocence cases, will now test their theory, which is rejected by prosecutors, when they ask a judge at a Tuesday hearing to vacate the convictions and order new trials.

The new tests did not find the DNA of any of the four men prosecuted – Morton Johnson, Derrick Chappell, Samuel Grasty and Richard McElwee – in Nickens’s apartment, despite a violent struggle there that the attorneys argue would have left traces. The men’s DNA was also not found on the only piece of physical evidence allegedly linking them to the crime, a green jacket left at the scene.

The men’s attorneys say the tests plainly point to an alternate suspect. They contend that another man, whose genetic material is now known to have been in several places at the crime scene, raped and killed Nickens.

The new tests for the first time revealed that that man’s DNA was mixed with Nickens’s on her bed, where blood was spattered and a can of mace was nearby. The same genetic profile also was found on the green jacket and on a chewed straw in a jacket pocket, indicating it belonged to the man and not the defendants, attorneys argue.

The same unknown man’s genetic profile was previously identified in semen recovered from Nickens’s rectum during her autopsy in the late 1990s. Attorneys for the defendants argue that the semen was likely the result of sexual assault because Nickens had no boyfriend and was in poor health.

The unknown man’s genetic profile has been run through a law enforcement DNA database but has produced no hits to date.

Nilam Sanghvi, an attorney with the Pennsylvania Innocence Project who is representing Chappell, said the new evidence rules out any known forensic links between the convicted men and the crime.

“We now have the DNA evidence that really shows this was done by one unknown person,” Sanghvi said. “The defendants have been excluded from everything. The notion that [the] four . . . could somehow commit this crime without leaving a trace of their DNA seems absurd.”

Delaware County District Attorney Jack Stollsteimer does not contest the new DNA evidence but is opposing the motion to vacate the convictions. His office argues in a brief that the DNA tests would not have changed the outcomes of the men’s trials – the chief legal standard for the relief the defendants are asking for.

Prosecutors argue it was revealed during the legal proceedings that DNA found on Nickens’s body did not match any of the alleged perpetrators, so the new tests would not be enough to change jurors’ minds. Stollsteimer’s office declined to comment before the hearing.

“Absent compelling evidence of innocence, the trial court’s verdict should not be disturbed,” a prosecutor wrote in a brief. “The postconviction DNA evidence is neither compelling nor is it evidence of innocence.”

A heinous murder

Nickens, who was Black, lived about 35 minutes southwest of Philadelphia.

She spent the evening of Oct. 9, 1997, with her daughter, the daughter’s boyfriend and her granddaughter eating dinner and playing cards in her apartment, according to the prosecutor’s brief. After leaving, the daughter talked to Nickens by phone until 11 p.m., she later testified at trial. Nothing was amiss.

But when the daughter returned the next day, she found a scene of horror. She testified that Nickens’s front door was unlocked and that when she went inside the apartment, it looked “like a tornado hit it.”

Blood was spattered on a wall and the bed, items were scattered everywhere and Nickens was dead, lying facedown on the floor, according to the prosecutor’s brief. Nickens’s underwear had been removed and was found near the body, according to a brief by Grasty’s attorney.

The daughter also testified that she noticed something that was not there the night before: a green jacket draped on a TV.

Police were called and Nickens’s family told investigators that Grasty, who was 20 and lived nearby, might be involved in the slaying because the granddaughter had recently told Grasty she was pregnant by him and he didn’t believe he was the father, according to the prosecutor’s brief. Grasty is a cousin of Johnson, then 18, and friends with Chappell and McElwee, who were both 15.

The medical examiner ruled Nickens’s death a homicide and found that she had blunt-force injuries to her face and head. The examiner found that the injuries aggravated preexisting heart and lung disease, which led to Nickens’s death in the minutes or hours after the attack.

The examiner also discovered semen in Nickens’s rectum, but found little other evidence of injuries consistent with sexual assault, according to the prosecutor’s brief. Nickens’s daughter would testify at trial that her mother did not have any known male companions.

An informer also told police she overheard McElwee, Grasty, Johnson and Chappell discussing their involvement in Nickens’s killing, according to the prosecutor’s brief.

In an effort to gain evidence on Grasty, Chester Police Detective Todd Nuttall reached out to the narcotics division to see if they had anything on McElwee, who was mildly intellectually disabled and had an IQ of 69, according to a brief by Johnson’s attorney.

Nuttall learned that McElwee had twice sold drugs to undercover officers without being charged, so he brought McElwee in and interrogated him about Nickens’s killing, according to Johnson’s brief. For two hours, McElwee denied involvement, but eventually implicated himself and his friends in the slaying.

On the night of the killing, McElwee told investigators, he served as a lookout while Johnson, Grasty and Chappell broke into the back door of Nickens’s apartment and robbed her of $30, according to Johnson’s brief. The day after the statement, Chester police charged McElwee with murder, sex crimes and other counts.

Nuttall did not respond to messages seeking comment.

Authorities dropped the sex charges against McElwee after a DNA test ruled out him, Johnson, Chappell and Grasty as contributors to the semen found on Nickens’s body.

As part of a plea deal, McElwee agreed to testify against Johnson, Grasty and Chappell in exchange for a reduced sentence of six to 12 years, according to Johnson’s brief. McElwee was sentenced in 1999.

The attorneys for Johnson, Grasty and Chappell have raised doubts about McElwee’s story. They point out that he told investigators the break-in occurred at 10 p.m. and lasted five to 20 minutes, while Nickens’s daughter said she talked to her mom until about 11 p.m. that night. McElwee’s mother testified at trial that he was home by 10:30 p.m.

Vanessa Potkin, an attorney with the Innocence Project representing Johnson, said McElwee was vulnerable to manipulation because of his age and mental capacity and because he possibly faced a lengthy sentence. McElwee and his family did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

“Police are bringing in, interrogating and putting pressure on McElwee,” Potkin said. “Essentially, the whole case rests on the word of an intellectually disabled teenager facing life in prison.”

Trials and a push for innocence

Two years after Nickens’s killing, Johnson, Grasty and Chappell were charged with murder and other counts. The men faced separate trials that played out in 2000 and 2001.

Prosecutors argued that Grasty was angry that Nickens’s granddaughter had said she was pregnant with his child, so he persuaded his cousin and friends to rob Nickens, according to the prosecutor’s brief. McElwee testified against the three other defendants in each of their trials, laying out his account of the break-in.

During two of the trials, Nuttall and witnesses offered testimony that the green jacket found in Nickens’s apartment looked like one owned by Grasty, linking the defendants to the scene of the crime.

Prosecutors revealed that the DNA found on Nickens’s body did not match any of the defendants at all three trials, but offered no definitive explanation for how it got there. They called it a “mystery” at one trial.

They also alternately suggested that Nickens might have had consensual sex before her attack; that Johnson, Grasty and Chappell may have picked up a used condom and deposited the semen on Nickens to cover up their crime; or that another person could have entered Nickens’s apartment after the trio left and raped her as she lay dying or after she was dead, according to the brief by Grasty’s attorney.

Paul Casteleiro, an attorney with Centurion who is representing Grasty, called those possibilities “preposterous.”

“Their original theory . . . was that the person whose semen is in this woman’s rectum is the person who did this,” Casteleiro said. “They went ahead and did the [DNA] testing and the theory didn’t comport with the guy they wanted to pin it on, so they just abandoned the theory even though the evidence supports it.”

Johnson and Chappell were offered deals before trial that would have given them six-to-12-year sentences, but both rejected guilty pleas and decided to mount cases for their innocence, according to Johnson’s brief. Johnson, Chappell and Grasty were all found guilty of murder and sentenced to life in prison.

After the final sentencing for Johnson in 2002, Nickens’s family expressed relief. The Philadelphia Inquirer reported at the time that Nickens’s sister, Estella Payne, cried and held a framed photo of her sister outside the courtroom.

“I hope this family will be able to heal,” Payne said. “I hope these young men repent of their sins and ask the Lord to forgive them.”

Nickens’s son, Edward, said simply: “Justice has been served.”

Nickens’s relatives did not return calls for comment.

The men spent the decades that followed filing appeals and attempting to challenge their convictions from prison. At times, the men filed their own motions. Kenyett LeBue, Johnson’s sister, said the intervening years have been difficult.

LeBue and Johnson lost a sister in a fire and Morton’s incarceration has been like another death in the family, LeBue said. He’s missed graduations, family reunions and a memorial service for his sister. LeBue described her brother as outgoing, witty and sarcastic. He was the baby of the family.

“It’s been hard on the family. It’s really hard,” LeBue said. “We can’t get back those memories we could have made.”

Johnson is now 43 and has spent more than two decades in prison, like the other defendants. Chappell is 41 and Grasty is 46.

The defendants eventually got the innocence groups to take up their cases. Under Pennsylvania law, defendants can request post-conviction testing or retesting of DNA evidence if they meet certain criteria. Prosecutors agreed to the new round of testing in 2021.

After the results were returned last year, the men’s attorneys filed the motions to vacate their convictions. The judge could decide on the motions Tuesday, but is more likely to issue a ruling in the weeks or months to come.

Potkin said Johnson, who was held in pretrial detention, would have served less than four more years after sentencing if he had accepted the plea deal from prosecutors. He would have been home from prison long ago.

“Because he maintained his innocence, exercised his right to a trial and had hope in the system and a belief that truth would prevail, he ended up punished infinitely more than if he falsely admitted guilt,” Potkin said.