State agency supplements Morris case file

A state agency last week added four documents to a case file relating to PGN’s appeal for Nizah Morris 911 recordings from the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office.

The state Office of Open Records added the documents to the case file on Aug. 4, at PGN’s request. 

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 March, OOR approved an affidavit of non-existence submitted by the D.A.’s Office regarding Morris 911 recordings in its “possession, custody or control.” But PGN contends the D.A.’s affidavit is defective.

On April 12, PGN filed an appeal in Philadelphia Common Pleas Court, where the dispute remains under consideration by Judge Abbe F. Fletman.

On July 18, Fletman ordered OOR to file a “certified record” in the case, which is a compilation of documents generated when OOR handled the case. On July 31, OOR filed a certified record, but omitted four documents generated from February-April. 

Justin F. Robinette, an attorney for PGN, said Fletman is entitled to review a complete certified record in the case.

“We’re very grateful that a complete certified record has been filed with the court,” Robinette said. “It’s crucial that the court has all of the evidence at its disposal before rendering a decision.

“The Nizah Morris case is a challenge to our conscience,” Robinette added. “It really cries out for transparency. Having a complete certified record moves us a step closer to that goal.” 

PGN objects to several aspects of the D.A.’s affidavit of non-existence.

For example, the affidavit contains the phrase “I personally searching” when referring to a search for Morris 911 recordings. Also, the affidavit doesn’t acknowledge a prior OOR ruling that Morris 911 recordings are in the D.A’s “possession, custody or control.” 

Those recordings were supplied to the D.A.’s Office by PGN in 2009, after the paper received them from a private citizen.

Additionally, the affidavit states the D.A.’s Office “exhausted a significant amount of time” due to prior mediation with PGN. But OOR-sponsored mediation was supposed to be confidential; PGN contends the D.A.’s reference is inappropriate. 

Moreover, the affidavit claims OOR needs to be protected from “unreasonable burdens” caused by PGN. But OOR never has expressed a need for such protection. To the contrary, OOR recently filed a legal paper stating that, as a neutral agency, it has “no interest” in the outcome of PGN’s appeal.

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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.