D.A. may request a protective order in Morris case

A representative of the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office this week said the agency expects to seek a protective order in PGN’s open-records case for 911 recordings relating to the Nizah Morris incident.

Protective orders typically are employed to seal court records that otherwise would be accessible to the public.

During a July 18 pretrial conference, an assistant district attorney also said the office expects to request that PGN cover legal fees and costs associated with the litigation.

Immediately before the assistant D.A.’s statement about a protective order, PGN attorney Justin F. Robinette requested limited discovery in the case, which the assistant D.A. opposed. 

“Civil cases such as this one typically have a discovery phase, which involves the sharing of documents and information,” Robinette said outside the courtroom. “I objected to the D.A.’s opposition to discovery because our side is entitled to it.”

Robinette also emphatically opposed a protective order in the case.

“I hear your outrage,” replied Common Pleas Judge Abbe F. Fletman, who’s handling the case.

Fletman said the D.A.’s Office is free to file whatever motions it pleases, and she’ll rule on them in due time. Fletman also said she may hold oral arguments prior to ruling on a motion from the D.A.’s Office. 

Morris was an African-American trans woman found with a fatal head wound in December 2002, shortly after a police “courtesy ride” in the Gayborhood. Her homicide remains unsolved, and the D.A.’s Office says it has an “open” investigation.

In the past, the D.A.’s Office indicated it doesn’t have any Morris 911 recordings 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. 

Outside the courtroom, Robinette said the type of secrecy associated with a protective order would be “antithetical” to the transparency PGN seeks in the Morris case.

“It’s very strange that the D.A. would raise the specter of a protective order in this case, yet at the same time insist it has no Morris 911 recordings. What does it need to protect? I’m also concerned that the assistant D.A. indicated that a request for a protective order will include a request for sanctions against PGN in the form of legal fees and costs. This would have a chilling effect on the free press. Journalism is a search for the truth. And the search shouldn’t come with a price tag.”

Melanie Dante, an advocate for victims of police violence, attended the court proceeding.

“Silence perpetuates police violence,” Dante said outside the courtroom. “And it sounded to me in that courtroom that the D.A.’s Office wants to silence anyone asking for sunshine on this murky case.” n

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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.