Court orders D.A. to certify Morris records

Commonwealth Court last week ordered the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office to certify transactions that caused dispatch records relating to the Nizah Morris incident to become “public records” in the office’s possession.

Morris was a trans woman of color found with a fatal head wound in 2002, shortly after accepting a “courtesy ride” from Officer Elizabeth Skala. The D.A.’s Office continues to investigate Morris’ unsolved homicide. 

In the pre-dawn hours of Dec. 22, 2002, Skala was dispatched to handle Morris outside an LGBT bar in the Gayborhood. Prior to the dispatch, a 911 call was placed on Morris’ behalf, stating she was intoxicated and had mobility issues.

Inexplicably, Skala initiated an unrelated traffic stop while assigned to handle Morris. In May 2015, PGN requested a certified copy of all dispatch records pertaining to Skala’s traffic stop at the D.A.’s Office. 

Prior to submitting its open-records request, PGN received partial records for Skala’s traffic stop from the Police Advisory Commission. The paper shared those records with the D.A.’s Office in 2009-13.

In an 11-page ruling issued Sept. 6, Commonwealth Court said those dispatch records at the D.A.’s Office are “public records” in the agency’s possession. 

The court ordered the D.A.’s Office to provide to PGN a certified copy of the office’s transactions with the paper that caused the dispatch records to be in the office’s possession. 

As of presstime, the D.A.’s Office hadn’t provided the certified records to PGN. The office also has the option of asking for reconsideration or filing an appeal in state Supreme Court. 

PGN maintains that certification will help ensure the D.A.’s Office conducted a proper search for complete dispatch records for Skala’s traffic stop in the office’s possession. 

Justin F. Robinette, an attorney for PGN, lauded the Commonwealth Court’s ruling.

“Pennsylvania’s open-records law requires government agencies to provide a certified copy of its public records when requested by someone,” Robinette said. “PGN wasn’t asking for anything special. The paper simply wanted the D.A.’s Office to follow the law. We urge the D.A.’s Office to provide the certified records forthwith and put an end to this protracted litigation.”

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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.