When advocates for Nizah Morris mark the 12th anniversary of her death next week with a Center City march and vigil, one of their demands will be the release of all 911 transmissions connected to the case.
It’s believed the missing 911 transmissions hold answers to key questions about the Morris incident.
During the early-morning hours of Dec. 22, 2002, police were dispatched to investigate Morris outside the old Key West Bar, where she was extremely intoxicated.
Rather than allowing medics to assess the situation, police gave Morris a “courtesy ride” to the area of 15th and Walnut streets.
Morris didn’t live in that area, nor did she have family or friends there available to assist her.
Shortly after the ride, the transwoman was found by passing motorists at 16th and Walnut streets with blunt-force trauma to her head.
She died two days later, and her homicide remains unsolved.
Local authorities say they don’t have any Morris 911 transmissions aside from those released to the public in 2003. But it remains unclear how comprehensively they’ve searched their files.
Partial 911 transmissions released
In 2003, local authorities released cassette tapes containing 911 transmissions by three officers involved in the Morris incident: Kenneth Novak, Elizabeth Skala and Thomas Berry.
The tapes contain two transmissions by Novak, four transmissions by Skala and six transmissions by Berry.
Years later, after computer-aided dispatch records were released, it became evident the officers said more about the Morris incident over police radio than was released in 2003.
The missing transmissions pertain to three murky aspects of the Morris case: the voiding of Morris’ original tracking numbers; an unrelated vehicle stop initiated by Skala while still assigned to handle Morris; and a visit by all three officers to Jefferson University Hospital, where Morris was clinging to life.
Tracking numbers voided
Local authorities haven’t explained why Morris’ initial police-tracking numbers were voided at the 911 call center, despite repeated requests for an explanation.
It’s a pointed question, because voiding those numbers cleared the way for officers to avoid documenting the courtesy ride and Morris’ subsequent head injury.
Police-tracking numbers, also known as district-control numbers, help local authorities track various incidents, including incidents involving the need for police to provide transportation.
According to dispatch records, at 4:02 a.m. Dec. 22, 2002, Skala said something to her dispatcher over police radio that caused Morris’ initial tracking numbers to be voided.
Exactly what Skala said to her dispatcher hasn’t been divulged by local authorities.
In 2006, the city’s Police Advisory Commission showed the dispatch records to Skala. But she indicated that she didn’t know why the tracking numbers were voided.
Skala initiates a vehicle stop
Novak and Skala were dispatched to investigate Morris outside the old Key West Bar near 13th and Walnut streets, where Morris was staggering and stumbling.
Skala arrived first, and says she agreed to take Morris home, after Morris indicated she lived at 15th and Walnut streets.
For reasons not clear in the public record, Skala initiated an unrelated vehicle stop near 13th and Market streets while still assigned to handle Morris.
Local authorities have released partial dispatch records for the vehicle stop, but no 911 transmissions for it.
Missing 911 transmissions at 3:29 a.m. and 3:30 a.m. could clarify the priority level that Skala conveyed to her dispatcher about the vehicle stop.
Those missing transmissions are noted on dispatch records released in 2006, but local authorities haven’t answered any questions about them.
Skala and Novak remained at the vehicle stop for about 70 minutes, rather than responding to Morris after her head injury at 16th and Walnut streets.
If Skala and/or Novak responded to Morris at 16th and Walnut, her initial tracking numbers couldn’t have been voided, because they were still actively linked with Skala and Novak.
But Berry responded to Morris at 16th and Walnut and, even though he knew about the courtesy ride, he failed to promptly inform Skala of its aftermath.
Instead, Berry placed a jacket over Morris’ face as if she were dead, failed to preserve the crime scene and did nothing to ensure Morris’ prompt transfer to a hospital, according to eyewitness accounts.
Skala and Novak didn’t respond to Morris until two hours later — well after Morris’ initial tracking numbers were voided at 4:03 a.m. and no longer actively linked to Skala and Novak.
Officers go to Jefferson Hospital
Also missing are 911 transmissions pertaining to a visit by Novak, Berry and Skala to Jefferson University Hospital later that morning, where Morris was brain-dead but still breathing.
Concerns have been expressed that the officers’ visit was a pretext to “launder” their paperwork, rather than an opportunity to investigate what caused Morris’ head injury.
According to patrol-activity logs, at 5:38 a.m. Novak went to Jefferson after medical personnel summoned police because they thought Morris was an assault victim.
When Novak arrived at Jefferson, he reportedly didn’t realize the person in intensive care was the same person he was dispatched to investigate outside Key West Bar.
After contacting the 911 center for more information about persons transported by medics that morning, Novak summoned Berry and Skala to Jefferson.
There, all three officers concluded that Morris was probably a slip-and-fall “hospital case” originating in the Ninth Police District, not an assault victim originating in the Sixth Police District.
Their conclusion avoided the need to reactivate Morris’ initial tracking numbers and document the ride, which originated in the Sixth District.
It also avoided a prompt investigation by detectives, at a time when crucial evidence such as Morris’ clothing was still available for analysis.
In 2006, Skala testified to the PAC that her then-supervisor, Sgt. Michael Dougherty, went over police radio and told her to go to Jefferson.
If that’s true, Dougherty’s 911 transmission has never been released.
The Justice for Nizah committee is demanding the release of all missing 911 transmissions, in addition to a state probe of the Morris case and a meeting with District Attorney Seth Williams.
The J4N march and vigil begins 5 p.m. Dec. 22 outside the old Key West Bar, 207 S. Juniper St., and proceeds north on Broad Street to the D.A.’s Office, just south of City Hall.
Participants will carry candles to be placed in front of the D.A.’s Office.
Speakers will include trans activist Sharron L. Cooks, former state Rep. Babette Josephs and the Rev. Jeffrey A. Haskins of Unity Fellowship Church.