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Judge vacates convictions of three Philadelphia-area men imprisoned for decades Lawyers say pros


(PHILADELPHIA) — Three Philadelphia-area men, each of whom spent decades in prison, had their convictions vacated in court last Thursday due to recent evidence that their DNA had been absent from the scene of the murder of an elderly woman more than 25 years ago.

Sam Grasty, Derrick Chappell and Morton Johnson have consistently claimed their innocence in the 1997 murder of Henrietta Nickens, a 70-year-old woman who was beaten to death and possibly sexually assaulted in her Delaware County, Pennsylvania, apartment, according to Paul Casteleiro, Grasty’s attorney and legal director of the nonprofit Centurion, which worked on his behalf. The men were sentenced to life in prison and had been incarcerated for approximately 25 years, according to attorneys.

“The state didn’t answer any evidence in opposition to our DNA evidence and our crime scene reconstruction expert,” Casteleiro told ABC News. “Up until today, that hasn’t been the course that they have taken. They opposed this [evidence of their innocence] and in every way.”

The defendants were convicted of murder, burglary and engaging in criminal conspiracy, among other crimes, according to court documents.

Common Pleas Judge Mary Alice Brennan has set a bail hearing for May 23 after vacating the men’s convictions, according to court dockets. Delaware County District Attorney Jack Stollsteimer can ask for a retrial, appeal the judge’s decision to vacate, or dismiss the case, according to attorneys.

The district attorney’s office did not immediately return ABC News’ request for comment.

“This case should have never gone to trial,” Vanessa Potkin, Johnson’s attorney and director of special litigation at the Innocence Project, told ABC News in a statement. “As soon as the initial testing was done, law enforcement should have recognized that they had focused in on the wrong individuals. 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.”

Chappell was 15 years old when he was arrested. Johnson was 18 and Grasty was 21, according to their lawyers. All men are now in their 40s.

Nickens, the 70-year-old victim who was attacked and killed in her home on Oct. 10, 1997, was found by her daughter the next day, according to Casteleiro.

Chester, Pennsylvania, police questioned another neighborhood teen about the murder, Potkin told ABC News: 15-year-old Richard McElwee, who had a history of drug abuse, according to Potkin. Chester police, who had detained McElwee on drug charges, interrogated him for hours until he eventually gave them a confession, according to Potkin.

McElwee testified that he was the lookout while the three co-defendants entered the apartment to rob Nickens, according to Casteleiro. Prosecutors originally said that the defendants sexually assaulted Nickens, but none of their DNA matched the semen found at the crime scene, nor was the four defendants’ DNA found anywhere at the scene, according to Casteleiro.

Prosecutors alleged a green jacket that was found at the crime scene belonged to Grasty, without testing it for DNA, according to Casteleiro. Years later, the jacket was tested for DNA and did not match the DNA of any of the defendants, but it did match the semen in the victim’s body, according to Casteleiro.

McElwee was given a six-to-12-year sentence with the plea deal, while Grasty, Chappell and Johnson were given life sentences.

Neither Nickens’ family, the Chester Police Department, nor McElwee immediately responded to ABC News’ request for a statement.

Without a DNA match, prosecutors developed theories on where the semen at the crime scene came from, according to Casteleiro.

“It’s just contrary to what the justice system is all about,” Casteleiro said. “Prosecutors are supposed to do justice and not just supposed to get convictions. … They want to convict the right people.”

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