Judge Vacates Convictions After Imprisoning Philly Men For Decades

Three men from the Philadelphia area who have spent decades behind the bars had their convictions vacated last week in court.

The decision came after recent evidence emerged that revealed that their DNA was absent from the scene of the murder of an elderly woman more than 25 years ago.

Ever since 70-year-old Henrietta Nickens was murdered in her apartment in Delaware County, Pennsylvania, in 1997, Morton Johnson, Derrick Chappell and Sam Grasty have consistently said they were innocent.

All three men were convicted of her murder, though, and sentenced to spend their life behind bars. Paul Casteleiro, who’s serving as the attorney for Grasty and is the legal director of the non-profit organization Centurion, said the men have spent about 25 years in prison.

As the attorney told ABC News recently:

“The state didn’t answer any evidence in opposition to our DNA evidence and our crime scene reconstruction expert. 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 three defendants were all convicted of burglary, murder and engaging in criminal conspiracy, court documents show.

Court dockets show that the three men will have a bail hearing on May 23, which was set by Mary Alice Brennan, a Common Pleas judge, following the convictions being vacated.

The attorneys representing the defendants say that Jack Stollsteimer, the district attorney of Delaware County, can request a retrial, appeal the decision to vacate or dismiss the case altogether at that hearing.

The DA’s office didn’t respond to a request for comment from ABC News on the matter.

The three men continue to say they are innocent. As Johnson’s attorney, Vanessa Potkin, said in a statement:

“This case should have never gone to trial. 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.”

Grasty was 21 when he was arrested, while Johnson was 18 and Chappell was only 15. Each is now in their 40s.

When Nickens’ body was discovered by her daughter the day after her murder, police in Chester questioned Richard McElwee, another 15-year-old from the neighborhood.

He had a history of drug abuse, Potkin said.

He was detained and interrogated for hours, and eventually confessed to being the lookout for the three defendants who he said entered the apartment to rob Nickens.

While prosecutors alleged that the three men assaulted Nickens, none of their DNA matched semen that was found at that crime scene. Castelerio also said that the DNA of none of the four men was found at the scene anywhere.

Casteleiro said that, absent matching DNA, prosecutors developed various theories about where the DNA material may have come from. He said:

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