Police release duplicate Morris homicide file
by Timothy Cwiek
Feb 17, 2011 | 2343 views | 0 0 comments | 8 8 recommendations | email to a friend | print
More than eight years after her death, police have released the homicide file for Nizah Morris. The file, lost since about 2003, was recently discovered in the city’s archives unit.

The case has never been solved.

Morris was a transgender woman found on a Center City street with a fatal head wound during the early-morning hours of Dec. 22, 2002, shortly after receiving a courtesy ride from Philadelphia police.

She died two days later, on Dec. 24, from the blunt-force trauma to her head. The crime remains unsolved, and the police and District Attorney’s office continue to investigate.

Due to a 2008 court order calling for transparency in the Morris case, a copy of the file was supplied to PGN on Feb. 10.

Common Please Judge Jane Cutler Greenspan signed the order after PGN filed a Right-to-Know request seeking complete 911 records related to the incident.

The Police Advisory Commission, which is investigating the matter for possible police misconduct, had not received its copy of the file at press time.

Three Philadelphia police officers — Thomas Berry, Kenneth Novak and Elizabeth Skala — responded to emergency calls about Morris that morning.

The first 911 call placed on her behalf was at 3:07 a.m. by a woman identified only as “Anisa.” Morris was severely inebriated, lying in the street near Key West Bar at Juniper and Chancellor streets.

Skala and Novak were dispatched to investigate, and paramedics also were summoned.

Because Morris only wanted to go home, Skala canceled paramedics and gave Morris a ride to 15th and Walnut streets, where Morris said she lived.

Berry said he saw Skala and Morris during the ride, on the 1400 block of Walnut. He offered his assistance, but it wasn’t needed, he said.

A few minutes later, Berry returned to the area and spotted Morris at 16th and Walnut streets, with the fatal head wound. Berry wrote a police-incident report.

Novak said he didn’t reach Juniper and Chancellor streets in time to assist Morris, but he visited her about two hours later at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital, when hospital staff summoned police because they thought Morris was an assault victim.

No report of courtesy ride

The homicide file indicates that detectives knew nothing about the Morris courtesy ride in the initial phase of the homicide investigation.

On Dec. 25, 2002, the day Morris was declared a homicide victim, investigators wrote a memo seeking 911 recordings for the incident at 16th and Walnut streets.

It wasn’t until Dec. 31 that investigators initiated a request for 911 recordings for the incident outside Key West.

Part of the confusion was due to the lack of an incident report filed about the courtesy ride.

Numerous computer documents in the file indicate that the officers didn’t think the head-wound victim was the focus of the 911 call at Key West. Thus, there was no need to document the ride with a report.

When questioned by the PAC in 2006, Skala said she first thought Morris was the target of the Key West call, but couldn’t remember whether that perception changed later in the morning.

The 911 recordings might provide clarity, but no 911 tapes or transcripts were included in the duplicate file supplied to PGN.

Scene at Walnut Street

Oscar Padilla, the first witness at the post-injury scene, said Morris was lying on her back in the middle of the street, naked from the waist up, with her clothes pulled over her face, when Padilla spotted her.

Padilla said Berry almost drove past the scene.

Berry said he was flagged down by motorists, and parked his police vehicle on the southwest corner of the intersection.

David Brennan, another motorist, said he was traveling westbound on Walnut Street about 3:45 a.m. and stopped near Morris, because Berry was parked alongside her, blocking traffic.

Berry denied repositioning his vehicle from 16th Street to Walnut. He said Officer Michael Givens was blocking traffic on Walnut Street.

Givens has never testified publicly about his role in the incident, and no information about his participation in the incident was contained in the homicide file.

Brennan also said he saw Berry place a jacket over Morris’ face as she was put into the ambulance. Berry said he has no recollection of doing that.

Brennan said Morris was lying in the street when he arrived, and remained in that position for several minutes before being placed in the ambulance.

But the two paramedics, Teresa Height and Stephen McCarthy, said they arrived at the Walnut Street scene at 3:32 a.m., and promptly placed Morris in the ambulance.

Thomas Jefferson University Hospital records state that Morris arrived at the emergency room at 4:13 a.m.

The homicide file contains no explanation from Height or McCarthy as to why it took approximately 40 minutes to transport Morris six blocks to the hospital.

“We ended up assuming that the patient fell on her face and was injured that way,” McCarthy said, indicating that they didn’t think Morris was a brain-trauma victim.

Berry’s report

According to police guidelines, Berry wasn’t required to write an incident report, because Morris was believed to be simply a hospital case, and was not transported to the hospital by police.

If Berry had transported Morris to the hospital, he would have been required to write a report.

Still, officers have the discretion to write a report, and Berry’s report proved to be a useful point of reference when all three officers arrived at Jefferson Hospital a few hours later.

Berry said he stayed at the Walnut Street scene until 4:06 a.m., spending some of that time preparing the incident report, after Morris was put in the ambulance.

The homicide file contains two copies of Berry’s report. The first report lists two pseudonyms for Morris: Jane Doe and John Doe. It also lists the letters F and M for Morris’ sex.

A second copy of the report only contains the pseudonym Jane Doe, and the letter F for the person’s sex. Also, the investigation-control number is missing in the second version of the report, which could have been redacted or rewritten.

If paramedics arrived at 3:32 a.m., that means Berry spent about 34 minutes on the report. Yet he didn’t use any of that time to contact Skala to ask if she knew Morris’ name or address.

Lt. Ray Evers, a police spokesperson, denied police made any redactions to Berry’s report. Evers said Berry wrote two similar reports — possibly to clarify in his second report that Morris wasn’t a male.

“There were no redactions; the second report is a clarification,” Evers told PGN.

Evers said he would try to contact Berry for more details.

Numerous documents state that Berry went to Walnut Street after responding to a radio call, but Berry said he happened on the incident on his own, prior to any contact with a dispatcher.

The discrepancy could be significant, because the paperwork of all three officers indicated they worked on one continuous hospital case.

An additional radio call documented by Berry would have given a different impression to a supervisor reviewing the paperwork that morning.

The patrol-log times of Berry and Skala overlap at 3:25, indicating a continuous link between Berry, Skala and Novak on the courtesy ride.

But if Berry checked “R” for radio call on his patrol log, that would indicate that 911 calls for the post-injury scene were placed by 3:25 — the same time that Skala’s log indicates she was with an uninjured person.

Ascertaining what the officers said they told a supervisor, Sgt. Michael Dougherty, could clarify the issue.

But those conversations have not yet been revealed publicly.

The 911 recordings also could provide clarity, but a search warrant for the “enhanced 911 system” indicates that the complete 911 transcripts were placed under court seal at some point.

Toxicology report

On Jan. 28, 2003, homicide investigators received the toxicology results for Morris from Jefferson Hospital. The results state that Morris had a blood-alcohol level of .342, which is three times the legal limit if Morris were a motorist.

Additionally, traces of marijuana were detected in her system.

This information wasn’t supplied to the Police Advisory Commission, and its initial report on the Morris case referred to lab results from the Medical Examiner’s Office. Those results didn’t detect any alcohol or drugs in Morris’ system, most probably because the autopsy was conducted three days after the substances were consumed.

The Jefferson Hospital findings tend to corroborate statements by several witnesses that Morris had to be assisted into Skala’s vehicle by onlookers because Morris was too impaired to stand or walk on her own.

But Skala said that Morris could walk on her own, and she saw her do so both before and after entering her cruiser.

Paul Gisondi, another witness, told homicide investigators that Skala had two encounters with Morris that morning.

During the first encounter, Skala drove by in her cruiser and told Morris that she couldn’t keep lying in the street with her breasts exposed, at Juniper and Chancellor streets.

Several minutes later, Skala returned to the area and gave Morris the ride, Gisondi said.

Skala denied having a prior encounter with Morris.

“I don’t know Paul Gisondi, I don’t know what he saw, thought he saw, what he said or what he did,” Skala told investigators.

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