The Nizah Morris case has been thoroughly investigated and there’s no evidence to charge anyone with a crime, Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams said last week.
Williams conveyed that message at an April 15 forum sponsored by the Justice for Nizah committee, entitled “Trans Lives Matter.” About 35 people attended the event, which was held at the William Way LGBT Community Center.
Morris was a transgender woman found with a fatal head wound in 2002, minutes after entering a police vehicle for a “courtesy ride.” Her homicide remains unsolved.
At the forum, concerns were expressed that police used excessive force on Morris, then made her out to be a slip-and-fall victim.
But Williams said there’s no evidence to support that scenario. If there were such evidence, he would prosecute police, he said.
“I don’t have a problem charging police with use of excessive force,” he said. “I don’t give any police officer a free ride.”
Throughout his career, he’s prosecuted 52 police officers for use of excessive force, due to sufficient evidence, he added.
But Williams declined to say whether he would try to locate missing evidence in the Morris case.
Missing evidence includes video-surveillance tapes, police-radio transmissions, medic-radio transmissions, cell-phone records, search warrants, dispatch records and Morris’ clothing and jewelry.
Williams also declined to specify measures he would enact to prevent future losses of evidence, nor would he agree to compile a list of evidence misplaced by the D.A.’s Office.
But the D.A. said his office would interview Daniel Coll, who was outside the old Key West Bar when Morris was placed inside the police vehicle for the courtesy ride.
Williams’ willingness to have Coll interviewed offered the J4N committee a glimmer of hope that a homicide detective would be assigned to the case and can respond to questions.
Williams was asked to lift a nondisclosure agreement with the Police Advisory Commission that blocks public access to numerous Morris records generated by the D.A.’s Office.
Williams declined to do so, but said City Councilman Mark Squilla intends to nominate a transgender woman to the PAC and that she would be welcome to review the D.A.’s Morris records.
Tenika Watson, a longtime friend of Morris, was a panelist at the forum. She described Morris as a “lovely girl,” whose death was devastating to family and friends.
Twelve years ago, Watson said, she wasn’t surprised to learn of Morris’ death shortly after her friend had been inside a police vehicle.
“I know about those courtesy rides,” she said. “I’ve had a few of them myself. But I’ve survived them.”
Another panelist, attorney Charles P. Goodwin said the Morris case embodies important societal issues.
“The truth about the past is something that matters to the present,” Goodwin said. “From a political, social and moral point of view, the right thing to do is to bring as much into the light as we can, so we can understand what happened to Nizah Morris.”
Also in attendance was Helen “Nellie” Fitzpatrick, director of the city’s Office of LGBT Affairs. Fitzpatrick said she would do what she could to facilitate the release of the police Internal Affairs file on the Morris incident.
After the forum, J4N member Rich Wilson expressed hope that Williams would take discernible steps toward transparency.
“Seth needs to make available the materials that he has, and find out what happened to the missing materials,” Wilson said. “We’re the public and he serves the public. He needs to follow up with tangible action.”
Former state Rep. Babette Josephs, who moderated the panel discussion, said it was productive.
“A goal of J4N is to increase dialogue and trust between law enforcement and the LGBT community,” Josephs said. “The panel discussion was an important step in the right direction. We’re very grateful to Seth Williams, Nellie Fitzpatrick and everyone else who seeks justice for Nizah Morris.”
Editor’s note: PGN writer Timothy Cwiek also was a panelist at the forum.