Judge in Morris case recuses himself

Common Pleas Judge Daniel J. Anders this week recused himself from PGN’s open-records case for 911 recordings from the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office relating to the Nizah Morris incident.

Citing a lengthy association with PGN publisher Mark Segal, Anders announced his recusal during a July 10 court proceeding. Anders said the case will be handled by Common Pleas Judge Abbe F. Fletman.

Neither side in the dispute requested Anders’ recusal; instead, he took the action on his own initiative. Anders also pointed out that he’s been written about over the years by a PGN reporter covering the Morris case. 

Morris was an African-American trans woman found with a fatal head wound in 2002, shortly after a police “courtesy ride” in the Gayborhood. Her homicide remains unsolved.

The D.A.’s Office claims it doesn’t have any Morris records in its “possession, custody or control,” which is a legal phrase to denote an agency’s records. But in 2016, the state Office of Open Records determined a nine-page transcript of Morris 911 recordings created by PGN is in the D.A.’s “possession, custody or control.” 

PGN made the transcript based on Morris 911 recordings received from a private citizen — and shared the transcript with the D.A.’s Office in 2009. However, in response to an open-records request, the D.A.’s Office claims the transcript isn’t an agency record that’s subject to disclosure. 

Justin F. Robinette, an attorney for PGN, said the D.A.’s Office should be held accountable for its Morris holdings. 

“In 2016, the D.A.’s Office indicated there were Morris 911 recordings in its ‘possession, custody or control,’” Robinette said. “Yet now the D.A.’s Office is saying the opposite — [that] there are no Morris 911 recordings in its ‘possession, custody or control.’ The D.A.’s Office also submitted an affidavit that states, ‘I personally searching,’ indicating by its plain language that a search is ongoing.” 

Another court proceeding on the dispute will be held 10 a.m. July 18 in Courtroom 426 of City Hall, with Fletman presiding.

If accurate and complete, the nine-page transcript corroborates eyewitness accounts that Morris couldn’t navigate on her own due to intoxication. But a Philadelphia police officer claimed Morris was able to stand and walk without assistance, and that she was an appropriate recipient of a courtesy ride. 

The transcript also tends to corroborate the testimony of a witness who saw Morris after her head injury, lying unconscious at 16th and Walnut streets. 

The witness told the Police Advisory Commission that a police officer and two paramedics had a lengthy conversation while Morris lay in the street. Then, the officer allegedly placed Morris’ jacket over her face as she was lifted onto a stretcher. 

Morris died two days later, on Dec. 24, 2002, due to blunt-force head trauma. The following day, her death was declared a homicide by the city Medical Examiner’s Office.

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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.