Judge overturns murder convictions of ‘Chester Trio’ after more than two decades in prison

Mar 31, 2024, 3:33 PM

From left, Derrick Chappell, Morton Johnson and Sam Grasty have spent more than two decades in pris...

From left, Derrick Chappell, Morton Johnson and Sam Grasty have spent more than two decades in prison for the 1997 killing of Henrietta Nickens. (Provided to CNN via CNN Newsource)

(Provided to CNN via CNN Newsource)

Originally Published: 31 MAR 24 14:00 ET

(CNN) — Citing new DNA evidence, a Pennsylvania judge on Thursday overturned the murder convictions of three men known as the “Chester Trio” who have been imprisoned for nearly 25 years for a crime they say they did not commit.

Derrick Chappell, 41, Morton Johnson, 44, and Samuel Grasty, 47, were each convicted in separate trials of second-degree murder and other charges in 2000 and 2001, and sentenced to life in prison for the 1997 killing of Henrietta Nickens, 70, in Chester, Pennsylvania.

Yet they have maintained their innocence over the two decades they’ve been imprisoned.

Last year, the “Chester Trio” asked a judge to throw out their convictions and order new trials, citing new DNA evidence they say points to an unknown man as the killer. Prosecutors, though, fought to keep the three behind bars and uphold the convictions, saying the DNA evidence did not change anything already known at the time of their trials.

In Thursday’s ruling, Delaware County Judge Mary Alice Brennan sided with the trio, vacating the convictions and granting their request for a new trial.

The ruling is a vindication of their long protests of innocence, said Paul Casteleiro, an attorney with Centurion who represents Grasty.

“This order means so much in that it says this court believes that these guys would be acquitted, they’re innocent,” Casteleiro told CNN. “That’s powerful after all these years of knocking on the door and being denied everywhere they went.”

The ruling spurred a range of emotions from the men, their attorneys told CNN.

“As soon as (Johnson) heard, he went and found Derrick (Chappell) in the yard and brought Derrick in, and they just stood there hugging and crying,” said Vanessa Potkin of the Innocence Project, who represents Johnson. “You can imagine what an ordeal this has been for them.”

Chappell was “really excited and grateful,” said Nilam Sanghvi of the Pennsylvania Innocence Project, which represents Chappell.

“We’re really glad the judge understood the power that this new evidence would have,” Sanghvi said.

Still, Chappell, Johnson and Grasty remain behind bars. Prosecutors have up to 30 days to decide whether to appeal the judge’s ruling, and a bail hearing is set for May 23.

Delaware County District Attorney’s Office director of policy and public engagement Margie McAboy said no decision has been made yet. “The DA will be meeting with his Deputy for Law and Appeals, Cate Kiefer, next week to review next steps,” she said in an email.

Casteleiro, Grasty’s attorney, said his client was very happy but noted he’s not out yet. “Until each one of them is out and free, this isn’t over,” Casteleiro said.

The three men were represented by nonprofit organizations working to free people they believe are wrongly convicted: Johnson by the Innocence Project, Chappell by the Pennsylvania Innocence Project and Grasty by Centurion. The law firm Shook, Hardy & Bacon, also provided pro bono legal services for Chappell.

This case is just one of a number of murder convictions to be overturned years afterward. On March 18, Pennsylvania freed C.J. Rice from prison after he served more than a decade behind bars for a shooting his doctor, the father of CNN anchor Jake Tapper, said he could not have physically committed.

What the case was about

The case against Chappell, Johnson and Grasty stems from the killing of 70-year-old Henrietta Nickens, who died in her home in Chester on October 10, 1997. She had been beaten, and investigators found semen in her rectum and a mysterious green jacket with cocaine in the pocket on top of her TV.

Testing of the semen at the time showed it was from a male who remains unknown to this day, according to court filings.

The case against them primarily relied on testimony from a key witness, 15-year-old Richard McElwee, who said he acted as lookout while the other three robbed Nickens of $30, according to court records.

In exchange for his testimony, McElwee agreed to plead guilty to third-degree murder and other charges and was sentenced to six to 12 years in 1999, according to court records. CNN has not been able to reach McElwee.

The defendants’ petition for a new trial came after new DNA testing, which took place in 2021, further linked evidence from the crime scene to the unknown male and excluded the three defendants, according to Chappell’s attorneys.

Modern DNA testing techniques, particularly “touch DNA,” revealed the DNA from the semen matches several other items of crime scene evidence, including more semen on the green jacket and on the bedsheet and items in the jacket’s pocket, according to attorneys for the defendants.

Timothy Palmbach, an expert in crime scene reconstruction, testified in a Delaware County courtroom last August about the new DNA evidence, in particular a mixture of the unknown man’s semen, the victim’s blood, and urine on her bedsheet. The commingling of those bodily fluids shows the beating and sex occurred at about the same time, he testified, rebutting a key prosecution argument they were unrelated.

The mixture “fundamentally changes the nature of the crime scene and the conclusion to be drawn from it,” Palmbach said in court and wrote in a forensic report.

However, the prosecution argued their initial trials did not connect the semen to the defendants, and so these test results did not change the evidence. The prosecution also raised the possibility the 70-year-old may have had a secret sexual partner.

“The totality of the evidence – including the post-conviction DNA evidence – is just as consistent, if not more consistent, with Ms. Nickens having consensual intercourse prior to the assault as it is with an unknown perpetrator committing both a rape and an assault,” prosecutors wrote.

™ & © 2024 Cable News Network, Inc., a Warner Bros. Discovery Company. All rights reserved.

We want to hear from you.

Have a story idea or tip? Send it to the KSL NewsRadio team here.


A man sits at an office computer - Companies are experimenting with a four day workweek...


4-day workweeks may be around the corner. A third of America’s companies are exploring them

Nearly one-third of large US companies are exploring new work schedule shifts such as a four-day workweek, according to a survey by KPMG.

16 minutes ago

An image produced using optical microscopy shows Clostridium botulinum, an ingredient in Botox and ...

Deidre McPhillips, CNN

Counterfeit Botox injections linked to illness, hospitalization in two states

People in at least two states have been hospitalized with botulism-like illness after receiving counterfeit Botox.

1 day ago

A federal test of this well located in Salt Lake's Memory Grove, found small amounts of "forever ch...

Jen Christensen

Biden administration sets first national standard to limit ‘forever chemicals’ in drinking water

In an attempt to limit the amount of forever chemicals in United States drinking water, the Biden administration set a new national standard.

2 days ago

The National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIAI) headquarters is shown on March 26, 20...

Justin Gamble and Chelsea Bailey, CNN

National Association of Intercollegiate Athletes effectively bans transgender women from its women’s sports programs

(CNN) — The National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics voted to adopt a new policy Monday that effectively bans transgender women from participating in most of its women’s intercollegiate sports programs. The NAIA,  an athletic association consisting of 241 mostly small member colleges and universities as of 2023, governs intercollegiate athletics for more than 83,000 student-athletes, according to its website. According to the organization’s new transgender participation policy, “Only NAIA student-athletes […]

4 days ago

denver airport, a southwest flight from the airport suffered a mechanical issue...

Pete Muntean and Philip Wang, CNN

Southwest Boeing 737-800 flight from Denver loses engine cover, FAA investigating

Southwest said its maintenance teams would review the aircraft. The flight reached an altitude of about 10,000 feet.

4 days ago

Tesla Model Y vehicles sit on the lot for sale at a Tesla car dealership in May 2023 in Austin, Tex...

Peter Valdes-Dapena, CNN

What’s wrong with Tesla?

Originally Published: 07 APR 24 03:00 ET (CNN) — Last quarter, Tesla posted its first annual sales decline since the pandemic — a drop that was significantly worse than expected. The company blamed a weak Chinese economy, arson at its German factory and supply constraints because of escalating conflict in the Middle East. Those factors […]

4 days ago

Sponsored Articles


Live Nation Concerts

Artists coming to Utah First Credit Union Amphitheatre (formerly USANA Amp) this summer

Summer concerts are more than just entertainment; they’re a celebration of life, love, and connection.

Mother and cute toddler child in a little fancy wooden cottage, reading a book, drinking tea and en...

Visit Bear Lake

How to find the best winter lodging in Bear Lake, Utah

Winter lodging in Bear Lake can be more limited than in the summer, but with some careful planning you can easily book your next winter trip.

Happy family in winter clothing at the ski resort, winter time, watching at mountains in front of t...

Visit Bear Lake

Ski more for less: Affordable ski resorts near Bear Lake, Utah

Plan your perfect ski getaway in Bear Lake this winter, with pristine slopes, affordable tickets, and breathtaking scenery.

front of the Butch Cassidy museum with a man in a cowboy hat standing in the doorway...

Bear Lake Convention and Visitors Bureau

Looking Back: The History of Bear Lake

The history of Bear Lake is full of fascinating stories. At over 250,000 years old, the lake has seen generations of people visit its shores.

silhouette of a family looking over a lake with a bird in the top corner flying...

Bear Lake Convention and Visitors Bureau

8 Fun Activities To Do in Bear Lake Without Getting in the Water

Bear Lake offers plenty of activities for the whole family to enjoy without having to get in the water. Catch 8 of our favorite activities.

Wellsville Mountains in the spring with a pond in the foreground...

Wasatch Property Management

Advantages of Renting Over Owning a Home

Renting allows you to enjoy luxury amenities and low maintenance without the long-term commitment and responsibilities of owning a home.

Judge overturns murder convictions of ‘Chester Trio’ after more than two decades in prison