Top national honor for Nizah Morris coverage

It was announced this week that Philadelphia Gay News writer-at-large Tim Cwiek is the recipient of a national investigative journalism award for his reporting on the homicide of a local transgender woman.

Cwiek will receive a Society of Professional Journalists Sigma Delta Chi Award in the Investigating Reporting category for his coverage of the Nizah Morris case, the organization announced Wednesday. Cwiek took the top honor in the non-daily category; three other journalists will receive the investigative award for daily-circulation publications.

The contest, established in 1932, was open to all media outlets across the country and recognizes excellence in print, radio, television and other media.

“It’s a great honor to be recognized by this distinguished organization,” Cwiek said. “If my coverage of the Morris case plays any role in securing a proper investigation, I’ll be very gratified.”

Cwiek, a PGN staffer since the late 1970s, has followed the Morris case since its inception more than 11 years ago.

Police say that an inebriated Morris requested a three-block courtesy ride Dec. 22, 2002, and that, shortly after she exited the police vehicle, someone struck her on the head.

She died in the hospital two days later and her homicide remains unsolved.

Cwiek’s coverage has explored the possibility that Morris’ LGBT status affected the type of service rendered by police and paramedics.

Cwiek has attended and participated in numerous meetings of civilian and law-enforcement agencies and filed three Right-to-Know Law records requests — resulting in appeals to the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas.

“It’s been very challenging to access the records that do exist and to get an accounting of the records that appear to have been lost,” Cwiek said.

His first RTKL request, filed in 2007, led to the police department acknowledging that its case file was lost and ultimately to the Police Advisory Commission, the civilian-oversight committee, reopening its investigation.

The PAC last year issued a report citing an “appalling” investigation by local officials, and calling for state and federal probes into the homicide. Following the PAC report, Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey agreed to a series of new policies regarding courtesy rides and other issues at play in the Morris case.

Cwiek noted that the PAC’s second Morris report questioned the credibility of key parts of the police story — including that Morris exited a police vehicle at 15th and Walnut streets without the assistance of two officers at the location.

“If Nizah didn’t get out of the vehicle like police say, when was she killed?” Cwiek posed. “That’s a fundamental question raised by the PAC, which merits further investigation.”

Cwiek’s 2013 coverage included a full analysis of the new PAC report, coverage of the flourishing community effort calling for a state probe and an explanation of the importance of Morris records that appear to be lost, among other stories.

Cwiek said he’s inspired by the strength of Morris’ family and friends.

“Nizah Morris has a wonderful family and a bevy of advocates who care deeply about what happened to her,” he said. “Their steadfastness all these years has made my work possible.”

PGN publisher Mark Segal said Cwiek’s tenacity and perseverance in pursuing justice for Morris are exemplary of a true journalist.

“Tim is a rare breed in today’s journalism. In this time of instant-news gratification, he takes the time to get the story, no matter how long it takes,” Segal said. “For too long, Nizah and the stories of other trans people have been ignored by our community. Her story is a compelling one and one that needs to be told. To my knowledge, no other LGBT media outlet has spent this long and these resources on one investigation. We at PGN do that due to our respect for Tim and his professionalism We congratulate him on this incredible honor. All of us at PGN are proud to be his colleagues.”

Cwiek will receive the award at a June banquet in Washington, D.C.