After being behind bars for decades while protesting their innocence, three men are finally getting their day in court to argue for a new trial after new DNA evidence points toward an unknown suspect and away from them, according to CNN. Here’s what we know so far on this local story.
About the Case
In Delaware County, Pennsylvania, three men, Derrick Chappell, 41, Morton Johnson, 44, and Samuel Grasty, 47, were convicted in 2000 and 2001 of the murder of 70-year-old Henrietta Nickens in 1997. The allegations are that the three men killed her. A coat was recovered with cocaine and a straw. Semen was recovered from the victim’s rectum, which included DNA evidence from an unknown source.
A fourth man with intellectual difficulties testified against the three men mentioned above. His story has been repeatedly challenged. The DNA recovered from the victim did not match any of the three men. The prosecutor’s case theory was the victim was NOT sexually assaulted but had consensual anal sex with an unknown person at some point in time close to the time of the murder. The defendants, one of whom is represented by the Innocence Project, have argued this theory is ridiculous, the victim was obviously raped, and the DNA is the DNA of the actual killer.
Fast forward to today. The coat has been run under a new DNA technology called touch DNA, which showed the DNA on the coat was from the same person whose DNA was originally recovered from the victim’s body. Now, new proceedings under the Post-Conviction Relief Act are taking place with the hope these three men are exonerated and released from prison.
During the proceeding, a crime scene reconstruction expert testified that the mixture of the DNA in the semen, the victim’s blood, and the victim’s urine on her bedsheet suggests the beating and sexual assault occurred around the same time, according to another CNN report.
What About Compensation for the Wrongfully Convicted?
The question for us today is: What is the statute of limitation for the men to sue if they are exonerated? Generally speaking, they will have a new two-year period to sue under 42 USC 1983 for one count of malicious prosecution.
The real issue is whether they will have a cognizable claim for malicious prosecution. Likely, the issue turns on the basis upon which the Post-Conviction Relief Act petition was granted.
The standard for malicious prosecution is (1) the defendant initiates a criminal proceeding; (2) which ends in the plaintiff’s favor, (3) the proceeding was initiated without probable cause; and (4) the defendant acts maliciously or for a purpose other than to bring the defendant to justice. Lee v. Mihalich, 847 F.2d 66, 69-70 (3d Cir. 1988).
Here, it’s a tough case because they have a statement from a purported eyewitness who testified that the three men were the killers. A reasonable officer might think they had probable cause based on that story. However, if the witness really is intellectually limited and the DNA from the coat and body match, and none of it belongs to any of the three men arrested, a court could find the officers did not have probable cause to make an arrest. It could be a very good case under 42 U.S.C. 1983 for malicious prosecution. Let’s hope they are exonerated and a federal judge lets their civil case go to a jury.