Shocking DNA Revelation Could Free Three Men Imprisoned for 20 Years

By Hugo Mercer August 23, 2023

New DNA findings suggest a shocking twist in the 1997 murder case of a Pennsylvania woman; the men convicted may be innocent.

Convictions may be overturned in the 1997 murder case of a 70-year-old Pennsylvania woman as new DNA evidence indicates an unknown man could be the perpetrator, not the three men who have been incarcerated for more than two decades. Forensics expert, Timothy Palmbach, testified on Tuesday on the recent evidence featuring a combination of the unknown male's semen, the victim's blood, and urine on the victim's bedsheets, essentially refuting a fundamental prosecution argument.

This evidence “fundamentally changes the nature of the crime scene and the conclusion to be drawn from it,” Palmbach stated in court and reiterated in a forensic report. Derrick Chappell, Morton Johnson, and Samuel Grasty, the three men serving out life sentences for the crime, have always declared their innocence and have now petitioned for their convictions to be overturned.

The victim was Henrietta Nickens, who was discovered dead in her Chester, Pennsylvania, home on October 10, 1997. Investigators discovered semen within her body and a green jacket with cocaine in the pocket on top of her TV. Semen tests affirmed that it belonged to an unidentified male. The prosecution has argued there was no substantial evidence of nonconsensual sex or that this unknown male killed Nickens.

The case against the incarcerated men primarily relied on testimony from a 15-year-old Richard McElwee, who claimed he acted as lookout while Nickens was robbed. In return for his testimony, McElwee pleaded guilty to third-degree murder and other charges, receiving a sentence of six to twelve years in 1999.

The defendants are now adequately represented by non-profit bodies working to free wrongly incarcerated people - Johnson with the Innocence Project, Chappell with the Pennsylvania Innocence Project, and Grasty supported by Centurion.

In court, families of the three convict men gathered to lend their support. Janet Purnell, Johnson’s mother, lamented the decades-long pain of seeing her son wrongfully convicted. “Everybody needs to know that my son – they didn’t do that. They’re innocent. And justice will prevail,” Purnell said.

Jeffrey Fumea from Pennsylvania State Police forensic DNA division also testified, stating that the unknown man's semen has been entered into the CODIS, the US DNA database, but no match has been found.

The appeal for a new trial followed extensive DNA testing in 2021, which further linked crime scene evidence from the unknown male and excluded the convicted men, according to legal representatives for the men. Advanced testing techniques, especially 'touch DNA', discovered that the DNA from semen matched several other pieces of crime scene evidence, contradicting the prosecutions argument of consensual sex.