DA: More transparency possible in Morris case

District Attorney Seth Williams said this week he’ll consider lifting a non-disclosure agreement that withholds from public scrutiny dozens of witness interviews relating to the Nizah Morris case.

Williams spoke about the Morris case during a Center City forum on crime in the LGBT community that he hosted.

“It’s something I’ll think about,” Williams said, when asked whether he would lift a non-disclosure agreement entered into with the Police Advisory Commission in 2011.

Morris was a transgender woman who became a homicide victim in 2002, shortly after getting inside a police vehicle for a “courtesy ride.” The case remains unsolved.

A 2008 court order requires city agencies to render their Morris records accessible to the public. But city attorneys say the PAC cannot divulge its Morris records received from the D.A. due to a non-disclosure agreement.

Last year, the PAC recommended state and federal probes of the Morris case, citing numerous evidentiary items that appear to be missing.

At the forum, Williams said he would consider conducting an internal review, to determine whether the D.A.’s office lost any of its Morris evidentiary items. He also said he’d consider reporting his findings to the community.

The April 1 forum focused on crime prevention and victim assistance in the LGBT community. It was attended by numerous police officials and staffers at the D.A.’s office.

They spoke about several new initiatives to reduce crime and assist victims in a professional, caring manner.

A rash of assaults and robberies recently occurred in the Gayborhood. These incidents include gunpoint robberies at Spruce Street Video and Scorpio Adult Boutique.

Additionally, Danny’s Adult Bookstore was robbed, an off-duty police officer was stabbed outside the Venture Inn, and multiple individuals were robbed at knife-point.

Police officials at the forum said detectives are making progress in several of these incidents. But they didn’t go into details, noting the matters are pending criminal prosecution.

Williams said the D.A.’s office has made great strides in serving the LGBT community in a culturally competent manner.

“We’re committed to providing compassionate, understanding and respectful services to everyone we encounter at the D.A.’s office,” he said.

He also urged members of the LGBT community to take an active role in crime-prevention efforts.

“Unless you’re willing to be part of the solution, you forfeit your right to complain,” Williams said. “Public safety is everyone’s responsibility.”

He said an effective partnership with the community is key to crime prevention. “We want to know what we can do, to help us do our job better.”

Assistant District Attorney Nellie Fitzpatrick, the D.A.’s liaison to the LGBT community, said the office has an open door to the community.

“The face of law enforcement is changing,” Fitzpatrick said. “If you need to be heard, there are people here who want to listen to you.”

Deputy Commissioner Kevin Bethel, the police department’s liaison to the LGBT community, pointed to the department’s new transgender-friendly policy as an example of the progress it’s making.

“We’ve definitely come a long way, but we have a lot of work to do,” he said. “There’s a lot of trust that has to be built, no doubt about that.”

Bethel said the vast majority of police act in a courteous and respectful manner, and those who don’t will be held accountable.

Other members on the panel included Capt. Robert Glenn of the Center City District; Capt. Brian Korn of the Sixth District; Capt. Ray Convery of the Ninth District; Capt. Frank Banford of Central Detectives; and Inspector Christine Coulter of the Central Police Division.

After the forum, Brian M. Green, a member of the police liaison committee, spoke favorably about the event.

“I give them credit for initiating this dialogue, showing they understand the community’s mistrust and concerns, and that they’re working to continue the dialogue and to improve,” Green said.

Colleen Ott, an LGBT advocate in attendance, expressed mixed feelings about the forum.

“It was a bit scattered, but at least they’re trying,” she said. “I’m glad I attended, and I’m looking forward to attending future forums [hosted by Williams].”

Asa Khalif, president of Racial Unity USA, said he’s encouraged that Williams publicly addressed the Morris case.

“It was a small victory, but we’ll take any victory we can get,” he said. “I wasn’t satisfied with the vagueness of Seth’s responses. But at least he didn’t rule out the possibility of more transparency in the case.”