District attorney plans to appeal decision to overturn murder convictions of 'Chester Trio'

ByDanny Freeman and Eric Levenson, CNN, CNNWire
Wednesday, May 1, 2024
3 men have convictions overturned after decades behind bars for 1997 Delaware County, Penn. killing
3 men have convictions overturned after decades behind bars for 1997 Delaware County, Penn. killing

CHESTER, Pennsylvania -- A Pennsylvania district attorney intends to appeal a judge's decision last month to overturn the murder convictions of the so-called "Chester Trio" - three men who have spent nearly 25 years in prison for a crime they say they did not commit.

The video featured is from a previous report.

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

They've maintained their innocence in the more than two decades since, and asked a judge last year to throw out their convictions and order new trials, citing new DNA evidence they say points to an unknown man as the killer. In late March - over the objections of prosecutors who fought to have the convictions upheld - Delaware County Judge Mary Alice Brennan vacated the trio's convictions and granted their request for a new trial.

Still, Chappell, Johnson and Grasty remained behind bars: Prosecutors had up to 30 days to decide whether to appeal the ruling, and a bail hearing was scheduled to take place on May 23.

On Tuesday, Delaware County District Attorney Jack Stollsteimer said he had, in fact, decided to appeal. In a statement to CNN, Stollsteimer said doing so would be "in the interest of justice."

"While I have great respect for Judge Brennan," Stollsteimer said, "I do not believe the DNA evidence recently submitted to the court, which matches the DNA already entered into evidence at each of the three defendants' individual trials, constitutes new evidence under Pennsylvania law, and certainly does not exonerate these defendants."

A notice of appeal was filed with the court on Friday, according to the district attorney's office.

Attorneys for at least two of the men said the district attorney's announcement was disappointing.

"There could be nothing further than justice than the decision to appeal the judge's order," said Vanessa Potkin of the Innocence Project, who represents Johnson. "The DA's decision is perpetrating a two decade long injustice and demonstrates profound confusion about both the science of DNA and the law."

That sentiment was echoed by Nilam Sanghvi of the Pennsylvania Innocence Project, which represents Chappell, saying the appeal would "prolong the unjust incarceration of our clients."

"The new DNA evidence conclusively shows that none of them was involved in this horrific crime and that, instead, an unknown male was the perpetrator," Sanghvi said. "We plan to seek bail pending appeal and look forward to the bail hearing the Court has scheduled for May 23rd."

Grasty's attorney, Paul Casteleiro, said Stollsteimer "refused to meet with the attorneys for the three innocent men to discuss the case," and called the appeal "an insult to the citizens of Pennsylvania and all who believe in a justice system based on truthful evidence."

Nickens died in her Chester home on October 10, 1997. She had been beaten, and investigators found semen in her rectum that testing at the time indicated was from a male who remains unknown to this day, according to court filings.

The trio's petition for a new trial followed new DNA testing in 2021 that further linked evidence from the crime scene to the unknown male - and excluded the three defendants, according to Chappell's attorneys.

The prosecution, however, argued in part that the initial trials did not connect the semen to the defendants, so the results of the new DNA testing did not change the evidence.

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