LGBT Commission considers Morris case

Trans attorney Julie Chovanes gave an impassioned presentation at the Sept. 12 meeting of the Mayor’s Commission on LGBT Affairs in Germantown, urging commissioners to support transparency in the Nizah Morris case. 

Morris was a trans woman of color found with a fatal head injury in 2002, shortly after accepting a “courtesy ride” from Philadelphia police. Her homicide remains unsolved. 

“I can’t feel safe in a city that’s covered up this case for 15 years,” Chovanes noted. 

Chovanes also questioned an assertion by the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office that it has been investigating the Morris case for almost 15 years. She said such an assertion shouldn’t justify a lack of transparency in the case. 

Chovanes urged commissioners to support the release of “every single piece of paper the city has about the Morris case.” 

“We are in the middle of a war,” she added. “So many of us are casualties. Nizah was a bloody casualty for something that wasn’t her fault.”

The commissioners asked a few questions about the case and generally appeared sympathetic to Chovanes’ presentation.

Chovanes and Office of LGBT Affairs Director Amber Hikes will remain in contact to ascertain what, if anything, the Kenney administration can do to help with transparency in the Morris case. 

Numerous Morris records in the city’s possession remain inaccessible to the public, including a 50-page police internal-affairs investigative file and interviews with Officer Kenneth Novak and his then-supervisor, Sgt. Michael Dougherty.

Both were involved in the Morris incident but neither testified when the Police Advisory Commission held public hearings on the case in December 2006. 

In a related matter, PGN has a pending open-records request for 911 recordings pertaining to the Morris case at the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office. The next court proceeding will be held 9:30 a.m. Oct. 10 in Room 426 of City Hall, with Common Pleas Judge Abbe F. Fletman presiding.

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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.