Morton Johnson Has Spent More Than Half His Life in Prison for a Crime New DNA Evidence Shows He Didn’t Commit

New DNA evidence supports what he’s always said: He didn’t commit the crime.

08.02.23 By Daniele Selby

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

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

Morton Johnson has spent over half his life in prison for a crime he didn’t commit — the murder of 70-year-old Henrietta Nickens in Chester, Pennsylvania. In fact, DNA evidence excluded Mr. Johnson, who was 18 at the time of the crime, as the attacker before his trial even began.

Yet 22 years later, Mr. Johnson is still fighting to prove his innocence. The Innocence Project, filed a motion to vacate his convictions for the 1997 crime last year. A hearing on new evidence in his case began on July 25, 2023, and will continue this month.

Mr. Johnson was wrongly convicted alongside his cousin, Sam Grasty, and their friend Derrick Chappell. At the time, the young men were between the ages of 15 and 20, and missed out on the entirety of their young adulthood as a result of miscarriages of justice reminiscent of those the Central Park Five experienced in 1989.

This case has many clear factors seen in wrongful conviction cases — police interrogation practices that exploited a person with an intellectual disability, a farfetched crime theory, and the trial penalty.

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

Morton Johnson with his Innocence Project attorney Vanessa Potkin.

Here’s what you need to know about Mr. Johnson’s case:

Henrietta Nickens was found dead in her home in 1997.

  • Henrietta Nickens was found dead in her home on Oct. 10, 1997 — the obvious victim of 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. In doing so, they chose not to pursue a thorough investigation into two men who had tried to cash in Ms. Nickens’ social security at a deli the month after her murder.

    Though Mr. Johnson lived several miles away, he often visited Mr. Grasty, together with their friends Derrick Chappell and Richard McElwee. Soon, all four men became the focus of the investigation.

No physical evidence connected Mr. Johnson, Mr. Chappell, or Mr. Grasty.

  • No physical evidence connected any of the four men to the crime. But during a coercive interrogation, Detective Todd Nuttall used intimidation and leading questions to pressure then-15-year-old Mr. McElwee, who has an intellectual disability, into implicating himself and his friends in the crime.

    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 unrelated drug charges. He ultimately claimed to be the lookout during the attack and, in exchange for his testimony, received a shortened sentence for the drugs charges to run concurrently with the charges for the attack on Ms. Nickens. The details and time of the crime in Mr. McElwee’s statement did not match the facts of the crime, yet law enforcement and prosecutors built their case around the statement. 

DNA evidence excluded the four men. 

  • Not only did no physical evidence connect the young men to the crime, DNA testing of evidence from the victim’s body conducted six months after the crime actually excluded them all. Instead of recognizing it had the wrong people, the prosecution changed its theory of the crime, dropping the sexual assault charges in spite of clear indications that the victim had been raped, and continued its case against the men.

    Despite this evidence, Mr. Johnson, Mr. Chappell, and Mr. Grasty were arrested for Ms. Nickens’ murder 18 months later, a whole two years after the crime had taken place

Mr. Chappell, Mr. Grasty, and Mr. Johnson all maintained their innocence and refused to plead guilty.

  • Mr. Chappell, Mr. Grasty, and Mr. Johnson all maintained their innocence and chose to fight to clear their names at trial. Still, both Mr. Chappell and Mr. Grasty were convicted by a jury and sentenced to life in prison. Seeing this, Mr. Johnson decided to waive a jury, opting instead to put his fate in the hands of a judge, who Mr. Johnson thought would see the flaws in the Commonwealth’s case. Instead, the judge asked him why Mr. McElwee would lie during his trial testimony. The judge appeared unable to believe that Mr. McElwee would falsely implicate his friends to save himself from a life sentence.

  • If he had accepted the plea deal prosecutors offered him instead of exercising his constitutional right to a trial, Mr. Johnson would have received a sentence of 6 to12 years. And with the time he served in jail awaiting trial, he could have been released in just four years. But, because he refused to admit to something he did not do and chose to pursue justice, 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 impacts millions of cases. 

The only evidence presented against Mr. Johnson was Mr. McElwee’s unreliable testimony

  • Mr. McElwee’s testimony, which was inconsistent with both the facts of the crime and statements he previously made to police, was the main evidence used against Mr. Johnson. The only other evidence presented against Mr. Johnson was a green XXXL jacket found at the scene, which did not belong to the victim and which Detective Nuttall claimed had been worn by Mr. Grasty or Mr. Johnson.

New DNA evidence excluded Mr. Johnson and his co-defendants 

  • 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. The testing, which was completed in 2022, found that semen from the victim’s body, a stain on the green jacket, and a stain on her blood-stained bedding all matched one unknown man. DNA testing from the jacket excluded all three men as having worn the jacket and identified the same unknown man as the jacket’s wearer. Additionally, saliva from a chewed straw found in the jacket pocket, along with cocaine, also excluded the young men and matched the unknown male whose semen was found in the victim’s body and at numerous locations at the scene.

The prosecution used outlandish theories to explain away DNA results that pointed to innocence.

  • In order to explain why DNA testing of the semen samples from the victim’s body excluded the men before their trials, the prosecution posited outlandish and unsubstantiated theories.

    The first was that the teens had found a used condom and planted the semen from it to “cover up” the burglary, and the second was that, after they had robbed and murdered Ms. Nickens, another person had entered her home and engaged in necrophilia. The recent DNA testing of the blood spatter and smears from Ms. Nickens’ bed indicate that the elderly woman was in fact raped on her bed, discrediting the prosecution’s theories. The prosecution has also suggested that the semen may belong to a secret boyfriend of the victim; however, as Ms. Nickens lived alone, was in poor health, and did not have any male partners, there is no consensual explanation for the semen’s presence.

If this evidence had been presented at trial, Mr. Johnson might not have lost two decades of freedom for a crime he didn’t commit. Through his many years of wrongful incarceration, Mr. Johnson has kept up his hopes of one day being free by writing poetry.

“When I write, I speak from a dark, lonely place. I speak from pain,” he said. “Fighting for this cause isn’t a game. In the fight for prison reform and injustice, a billion voices aren’t enough. We pour our hearts out and cry, and it falls on deaf ears. We’re not asking a lot, we’re just asking for justice.”

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