Delaware County Judge Vacates Conviction of Morton Johnson in 1997 Murder

DNA evidence excluded Mr. Johnson and co-defendants Sam Grasty and Derrick Chappell from the crime scene.

Press Release 03.29.24 By Innocence Staff

Morton Johnson with his Innocence Project attorney Vanessa Potkin. (Image: Courtesy of the Innocence Project)

Morton Johnson with his Innocence Project attorney Vanessa Potkin.

CHESTER, PA (March 29, 2024)  – The conviction of Morton Johnson, who has spent over half his life in prison for a murder he did not commit, was vacated yesterday by Delaware County Common Pleas Judge Mary Alice Brennan. Mr. Johnson was wrongly convicted in 1997 alongside his cousin, Sam Grasty, and their friend, Derrick Chappell, for the murder of 70-year-old Henrietta Nickens in Chester, Pennsylvania. The convictions of all three men were overturned yesterday. 

DNA evidence excluded Mr. Johnson, who was 18 at the time of the crime, before his trial even began. Yet, Mr. Johnson spent 23 years fighting to prove his innocence. The Innocence Project — along with the Pennsylvania Innocence Project, which represents Mr. Chappell, and Centurion, which represents Mr. Grasty — sent evidence from the case for advanced DNA testing in 2022. That additional testing excluded all three men from the scene of the crime. 

Delaware County District Attorney Jack Stollsteimer has 30 days to decide whether he intends to appeal the order, dismiss the charges, or retry Mr. Johnson, Mr. Grasty and Mr. Chappell. A bail hearing is scheduled for May 23.

“Mr. Johnson, Mr. Grasty, and Mr. Chappell have been fighting for this day for the past 23 years. When this nightmare began, they were just kids, between the ages of 15 and 20. Rather than being able to pursue their education, build their careers, and experience the joy of having children and raising their own families, they have had to endure the brutality and inhumanity of being locked in prison,” said Innocence Project Director of Special Litigation Vanessa Potkin, who represents Mr. Johnson. “Given the evidence that was available at the time of trial, this case should have never been prosecuted. The court’s decision recognized that given the powerful new DNA evidence, these convictions could not stand.”

Police Use of Coercive Interrogation 

Henrietta Nickens was found dead in her home on Oct. 10, 1997 after a brutal sexual assault. Unable to solve the case, detectives turned their investigation to 20-year-old Sam Grasty, Morton Johnson’s cousin, who had dated Ms. Nickens’ granddaughter and lived nearby. Mr. Johnson often visited Mr. Grasty, together with their friends Derrick Chappell and Richard McElwee. Police turned their attention to the four teens. As a result, police chose not to pursue a thorough investigation of two men who had tried to cash in Ms. Nickens’ social security at a deli the month after her murder.

No physical evidence connected Mr. Johnson, Mr. Grasty, Mr. Chappell, or Mr. McElwee to the crime. But Detective Todd Nuttall used open drug charges to bring then-15-year-old Mr. McElwee, who has an intellectual disability, into a custodial interrogation and then told him he was actually in trouble for something far more serious than the drugs — Ms. Nickens’ murder.

Although Mr. McElwee maintained his innocence in the murder case for two hours, he was facing both a life sentence if convicted for Ms. Nickens’ murder and significant prison time for the unrelated drug charges. Through police pressure and leading questions, he ultimately implicated himself and his friends, claiming to be the lookout during the attack. In exchange for his testimony, he received a shortened sentence for the drugs charges that would run concurrently with charges for the attack on Ms. Nickens. The details and time of the crime in Mr. McElwee’s statement did not match the facts, yet law enforcement and prosecutors built their case around the statement. 

Samuel Grasty, Derrick Chappell, and Morton Johnson (Image: Courtesy of the families)

Samuel Grasty, Derrick Chappell, and Morton Johnson (Image: Courtesy of the families)

The Prosecution’s Outlandish Theories

Not only was there no physical evidence to connect the young men to the murder, DNA testing of evidence from the victim’s body conducted six months after the crime and before the trial actually excluded them all. Instead of recognizing they had the wrong people, the prosecution doubled down on the case against them.

At Mr. Johnson’s trial, the prosecution posited outlandish theories. To explain the DNA exclusion, they claimed that the teens could have found a used condom and planted the semen from it inside Mrs. Nickens’ rectum to “cover up” the burglary. Alternatively, they argued that after the teens had robbed and murdered Ms. Nickens, another person could have entered her home and engaged in necrophilia. 

The 2022 post-conviction testing showed semen belonging to a single male on the victim’s blood-stained bed sheets, which matched semen on the swab collected from her body. DNA testing was also performed on a XXXL jacket that had been left at the scene during the crime. Detective Nutall testified at Mr. Johnson’s trial that it was similar to a jacket Mr. Johnson and Mr. Grasty had worn. But new DNA testing excluded Mr. Johnson and Mr. Grasty as the wearers, and showed the jacket was worn by the same man whose semen was found in the victim’s body. DNA from a chewed straw found inside the jacket pocket along with cocaine residue also matched the semen – showing that all the DNA at the crime scene came from a single man and none of the four individuals prosecuted for the crime.  

Rather than moving to overturn the convictions based on this new DNA evidence and demonstration of innocence, the District Attorney’s office opposed the motions to vacate their convictions, speculating without any support that the DNA could come from a secret boyfriend of the victim. But the victim, who was 70 years old, was in poor health, lived alone, and, according to her family, had no male companions. 

The Devastating Impact of the Trial Penalty

Prior to trial, Mr. Johnson was offered a plea deal by prosecutors, but refused to admit to something he did not do and chose to pursue justice. Had he accepted the plea deal instead of exercising his constitutional right to a trial, Mr. Johnson would have received a sentence of six to 12 years. With time served in jail awaiting trial, he could have been released in just four. Instead, he was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole at the age of 22. This massive disparity in the sentence he faced pre-trial and after trial is known as the trial penalty, and it has impacted millions of people, their families, and communities. 

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Robert Williams April 10, 2024 at 3:41 pm Reply   

Wonderful story. Thank God for The Innocence Project! I will do what I can to get involved as possible!

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