Mother and daughter spent the last night together playing cards. The next afternoon, her daughter, Carlotta Nickens, stopped by her mother’s apartment and found her face down in the hallway.
The apartment looked « as if it had been hit by a tornado, » Ms Nickens later said, according to court documents. “It was all messed up. Everything was just scattered everywhere.
His mother, Henrietta Nickens, 70, had died. She had been struck in the face, possibly with a punch, and died of cardiac arrhythmia, caused in part by her beatings and in part by her underlying heart and lung disease, court documents show. Evidence suggests she may have been sexually assaulted.
On Tuesday, the three men who were tried and convicted of the murder of Ms. Nickens in Chester, Pa., about 14 miles southwest of Philadelphia, asked a judge to overturn their convictions. They argued that new DNA evidence suggests that an unidentified man whose semen was found at the scene and whose DNA was later found on other items was responsible for his brutal death in October 1997.
“We now have conclusive evidence that a single perpetrator, probably on drugs, sexually assaulted and killed Henrietta Nickens,” wrote Nilam A. Sanghvi and John M. Lyons, attorneys for one of the men, Derrick Chappell, who was 15 when Mrs. Nickens was murdered.
Mr. Chappell, now 41; Morton Johnson, 43; and Samuel Grasty, 46, asked Delaware County Court of Common Pleas Judge Mary Alice Brennan to order new trials.
Prosecutors objected to the requests, arguing that the DNA evidence would not have changed the outcome of the trials in which the men were convicted and that it failed to prove that an unidentified man raped and killed Ms Nickens.
Judge Brennan is not expected to rule on the dispute immediately, as he considers the arguments of both sides. But the men believe evidence shows they’ve spent half their lives in prison for a murder they didn’t commit.
Paul Casteleiro, a lawyer for Mr Grasty, who was 20 when Ms Nickens was murdered, said in an interview on Monday that Mr Grasty « just wants the truth out there, and is very confident that the judge will see the evidence and agree ».
Carlotta Nickens and other relatives of Ms Nickens could not be reached for comment.
Investigators initially believed Ms Nickens had been sexually assaulted because her underwear had been removed, her sheets were bloodstained and semen had been found within her body, Mr Chappell’s lawyers wrote.
DNA testing performed before the men were convicted found the sperm came from an unknown man and not from any of them, Mr Chappell’s lawyers wrote. With no explanation for male DNA, prosecutors « quietly dropped the rape and sexual assault charges » in the case and « attributed this unknown DNA to a ‘mystery,' » Mr. Chappell’s lawyers wrote.
Mr. Grasty, Mr. Johnson and Mr. Chappell were convicted of second-degree murder, their lawyers said, based on testimony from a 15-year-old from the neighborhood named Richard McElwee, whom the men’s lawyers described in court documents as having cognitive impairment.
He testified that he acted as a lookout on the night of October 9, 1997, when then 18-year-old Mr. Johnson, Mr. Chappell, and Mr. Grasty, who was dating Ms. Nickens’ niece at the time, broke into Ms. Nickens’ apartment and stole $30.
Mr Chappell, Mr Johnson and Mr Grasty received life sentences. Because he was a minor, Mr. Chappell was subsequently sentenced to 28 years to life, making him eligible for parole in 2028. Under an agreement with prosecutors, Mr. McElwee pleaded guilty to third-degree murder and other charges and was sentenced to six to 12 years in prison.
Mr Chappell, Mr Johnson and Mr Grasty unsuccessfully appealed their convictions before prosecutors agreed to further DNA tests in 2021, which their lawyers say should now exonerate them.
The results showed men were not the source of the DNA on Ms Nickens’ bedding, a green jacket that was left on a television in her home or a chewed straw that was found in her jacket pocket along with a bag of cocaine residue, according to the men’s lawyers.
The test instead established that the DNA on each of these items belonged to the same unidentified man whose semen had previously been found inside Ms Nickens’ body and on a stain on her jacket, lawyers said.
Investigators were never able to identify the source of the DNA, despite searching law enforcement databases.
Prosecutors said in court documents that aside from the unknown man’s additional DNA that was found on the straw and litter, the new tests « did not provide any significant evidence regarding this case. »
« First, it should surprise no one that there was DNA on the sheet that matched the DNA inside Ms. Nickens, » wrote Sara G. Vanore, assistant district attorney in Delaware County, Pennsylvania.
And, he added, « the fact that this as yet unidentified person was also wearing a jacket with a chewed straw in his pocket which he left in his flat does not prove that he killed her and does not seem likely to have changed the verdict given what was already known about Mrs Nickens’ sperm. »
Ms Vanore urged the court to uphold the convictions.
« In the absence of convincing evidence of innocence, the jury’s verdict should not be disturbed, » he wrote. « Post-conviction DNA evidence is neither convincing nor proof of innocence. »