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Three men convicted of murdering a 70-year-old woman in 1997 are hoping DNA results will get them new trials after maintaining their innocence for more than 20 years.
Derrick Chappell, 41; Morton Johnson, 43; and Samuel Grasty, 46, were all found guilty of second-degree murder in separate trials, the Delaware County Daily Times reported. Chappell and Grasty each received life sentences, while Johnson received 99 years in prison, which is essentially a life sentence.
At the time that 70-year-old Henrietta Nickens was murdered inside her one-bedroom apartment in Philadelphia, Chappell was 15, Grasty was 20, and Johnson was 18. A fourth teenager, 15-year-old Richard McElwee, turned the three in and took a plea deal for third-degree murder and conspiracy to robbery. He received a sentence of 6-12 years in prison.
But new DNA testing casts doubt that Chappell, Johnson, or Grasty were involved in the murder, The Washington Post reported. Attorneys for the three men have said that recent DNA testing found none of the convicted men’s DNA on the victim. In fact, the DNA results suggested that an unknown man was solely responsible for the crime.
Nickens was brutally beaten to death during a violent struggle, yet no DNA from Chappell, Grasty, Johnson, or McElwee was found in the victim’s apartment. Their DNA was also not found on a green jacket left at the scene, believed to be the only physical evidence to link them to the crime, the Post reported.
Attorneys for the men told the Post that the DNA evidence points to an alternate suspect, whose DNA was found in multiple places around the crime scene as well as on Nickens’ bed, mixed with her own DNA. That DNA was also found on the green jacket and on a chewed straw in the jacket pocket. This genetic profile had been obtained in the late 1990s from a semen sample recovered from Nickens, which attorneys for the defendants argued must have come from a sexual assault since Nickens had no boyfriend and was not in good health.
So far, no one has been identified as the source of this DNA.
“We now have the DNA evidence that really shows this was done by one unknown person,” Pennsylvania Innocence Project attorney Nilam Sanghvi told the Post. “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 has opposed a motion to vacate the convictions, arguing in a brief that the DNA tests wouldn’t have changed the outcomes of the defendant’s trials.
“Absent compelling evidence of innocence, the trial court’s verdict should not be disturbed,” Stollsteimer wrote. “The postconviction DNA evidence is neither compelling nor is it evidence of innocence.”