Mother and daughter spent their last night together playing cards. The next afternoon, the daughter, Carlotta Nickens, stopped by her mother’s apartment and found her face down in the hallway.
The apartment looked “like a tornado hit it,” Ms. Nickens later said, according to court records. “It was all messed up. Everything was just scattered everywhere.”
Her mother, Henrietta Nickens, 70, was dead. She had been hit in the face, possibly with a fist, and died of a cardiac dysrhythmia, partly caused by the blows and partly by her underlying lung and heart disease, court records show. Evidence suggested she may have been sexually assaulted.
On Tuesday, the three men who were tried and convicted of murdering 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 there was responsible for her brutal death in October 1997.
“We now have conclusive proof that a single perpetrator, who was likely drug-fueled, sexually assaulted and murdered Henrietta Nickens,” Nilam A. Sanghvi and John M. Lyons, lawyers for one of the men, Derrick Chappell, who was 15 when Ms. Nickens was murdered, wrote in court filings.
Mr. Chappell, now 41; Morton Johnson, 43; and Samuel Grasty, 46, asked Judge Mary Alice Brennan of the Delaware County Court of Common Pleas to order new trials.
Prosecutors opposed 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 did not prove that an unidentified man raped and murdered Ms. Nickens.
Judge Brennan is not expected to rule immediately on the dispute, as she considers arguments from both sides. But the men believe the evidence proves that they have spent half their lives in prison for a murder they did not 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 he’s very hopeful that the judge is going to see the evidence and agree.”
Carlotta Nickens and other relatives of Ms. Nickens could not be reached for comment.
Investigators initially believed that Ms. Nickens had been sexually assaulted because her underwear had been removed, her bedsheets were bloodstained and semen was found inside her body, Mr. Chappell’s lawyers wrote.
DNA testing done before the men were convicted found that the semen had come from an unknown man and not from any of them, lawyers for Mr. Chappell wrote. With no explanation for the male DNA, prosecutors “quietly dropped rape and sexual assault charges” in the case and “chalked this unknown DNA up 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 the testimony of a 15-year-old from the neighborhood named Richard McElwee, whom the men’s lawyers described in court papers as cognitively impaired.
He testified that he had acted as a lookout on the night of Oct. 9, 1997, when the then 18-year-old Mr. Johnson, Mr. Chappell and Mr. Grasty, who was dating Ms. Nickens’s granddaughter at the time, broke into Ms. Nickens’s apartment and stole $30.
Mr. Chappell, Mr. Johnson and Mr. Grasty were sentenced to life in prison. Because he was a juvenile, Mr. Chappell was later resentenced to 28 years to life, making him eligible for parole in 2028. Under a deal with the 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 in 2021 to additional DNA testing, which their lawyers argue should now exonerate them.
The results showed that the men were not the source of DNA on Ms. Nickens’s bedding, on a green jacket that was left on a television in her home or on a chewed straw that was found in the pocket of the jacket along with a baggie with cocaine residue, according to the men’s lawyers.
The testing established instead that the DNA on each of these items belonged to the same unidentified man whose semen had previously been found inside Ms. Nickens’s body and on a stain on the jacket, the lawyers said.
Investigators have never been able to identify the source of the DNA, despite searching law enforcement databases.
Prosecutors said in court papers that, other than the additional DNA from the unknown man that was found on the straw and the bedding, the new testing “did not provide any significant evidence in regard to this case.”
“First, it should surprise no one that there was DNA on the bedsheet that matched the DNA inside Ms. Nickens,” wrote Sara G. Vanore, an assistant district attorney in Delaware County, Pa.
And, she added, “The fact that this person, still unidentified, also wore a jacket with a chewed straw in the pocket that he left in her apartment does not establish that he murdered her and does not seem likely to have changed the verdict, given what was already known about the semen in Ms. Nickens.”
Ms. Vanore urged the court to uphold the convictions.
“Absent compelling evidence of innocence, the jury’s verdict should not be disturbed,” she wrote. “The post-conviction DNA evidence is neither compelling nor is it evidence of innocence.”