New court procedural rule may help open Morris records

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A new state Supreme Court procedure that makes search warrants available to the public applies retroactively to the six warrants issued in the Nizah Morris investigation, a local judge said recently.

In a Jan. 16 letter to PGN, Municipal Court Judge Louis J. Presenza said state Supreme Court Rule 212 applies to search warrants issued in the Morris case six years ago, even though the new rule didn’t go into effect until last August.

Presenza said the rule wasn’t meant to be retroactive, but court officials are applying it retroactively to the Morris case because of a May 2008 Common Pleas Court order to reconstruct the Morris homicide file and make it available to the public.

Morris, 47, was a transgender woman found with a head injury shortly after receiving a courtesy ride from Philadelphia police on December 22, 2002. She died two days later.

Police say they have lost the entire homicide file related to her death.

It remains to be seen whether Presenza’s decision will trigger the release of all six warrants in the Morris case.

Copies of search warrants are supposed to be filed with the court clerk’s office for tracking purposes. But in the past, some judges have retained search-warrant information within their own files, especially if a warrant was initially sealed.

In the Morris case, the First Judicial Court clerk’s office was able to locate three warrants, which were never sealed by a judge. Those warrants were executed for surveillance tapes along Walnut Street, near Broad, where police say the ride took place.

The warrants yielded several hours of tapes, which the police say they’ve subsequently lost.

However, to locate the other three Morris warrants, the court clerk’s office needs the name of the judge who issued them.

Those three warrants were issued for transmissions on an enhanced 911 tape, AT&T wireless cell-phone records and a surveillance tape from a camera at 1632 Walnut St.

“We’ve been unable to locate those warrants,” said Dominic J. Rossi, deputy court administrator of the First Judicial District of Pennsylvania. “For those warrants, we really need the name of the judge and the date the warrant was issued to be able to locate them.”

Efforts have now shifted to the District Attorney’s Office, which normally retains search-warrant information and could facilitate the release of the missing warrants by providing the name of the judge who issued them and the dates they were issued.

Rossi said he wasn’t in a position to directly ask the DA’s office for information to help the clerk’s office locate the missing warrants.

Cathie Abookire, a spokesperson for the DA, had no comment on whether her office would facilitate the release of the Morris search warrants.

The enhanced 911 tape contained transmissions by paramedics on the scene where Morris was found with a fatal head wound at 16th and Walnut streets.

In order to have preserved those transmissions, police must have specifically sought them out via an internal memorandum or search warrant. Search warrants are utilized if there’s a possibility the transmissions will be used as evidence in a court proceeding.

Advocates for Morris say locating the search warrant for the enhanced 911 tape would be a key step in determining its chain of possession, whether a copy currently exists and whether a court seal is blocking its release.

“We simply must get clarity on the whereabouts of this tape and what was said on the tape,” said Kathleen R. Padilla, a transgender activist.

This week, William M. Johnson, executive director of the Police Advisory Commission, said the PAC remains committed to uncovering information about the enhanced 911 tape, along with information about cell-phone conversations between police who responded to Morris.

“While we’re hoping to see everything that’s relevant within the district attorney’s file, the search warrants for these records are of particular interest to the commission,” Johnson told PGN.

He said the PAC has been working with the DA since March 2008 to obtain comprehensive records in the case so that it can conclude its Morris investigation — which has ensued for more than five years.

So far, the DA’s office has resisted all attempts by the PAC to obtain photocopies of key Morris records, but has offered to allow a visual inspection of some additional records, Johnson said.

Such an inspection would require the signing of a nondisclosure agreement, which the PAC members have not yet agreed to do, he said. Any nondisclosure agreement signed by PAC members must include a provision retaining the PAC’s right to seek release of the requested documents through a court challenge, Johnson added.

He said that even if the PAC members sign a nondisclosure agreement prior to viewing additional Morris records, it wouldn’t prevent them from talking in general terms about the documents.

“We could talk publicly about conclusions that we reached after viewing the documents but we couldn’t disclose the specifics of what each document contained,” said Johnson.

In lieu of signing the agreement, the commission also could go directly to court to obtain the desired documents, since it already issued a subpoena to the DA for those records back in August.

Johnson said there’s no deadline for a decision on signing the nondisclosure agreement, but the issue will be discussed at the PAC’s next meeting, tentatively scheduled for 7 p.m. March 11 at 34 S. 11th St., sixth floor.

Tim Cwiek can be reached at (215) 625-8501 ext. 208.

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Tim Cwiek has been writing for PGN since the 1970s. He holds a bachelor's degree in history from West Chester State University. In 2013, he received a Sigma Delta Chi Investigative Reporting Award from the Society of Professional Journalists for his reporting on the Nizah Morris case. Cwiek was the first reporter for an LGBT media outlet to win an award from that national organization. He's also received awards from the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association, the National Newspaper Association, and the Keystone Press.