Morris anniversary marked by renewed efforts for transparency

Nizah Morris died 15 years ago this month and efforts for transparency in her homicide case remain ongoing.

On Dec. 24, 2002, Morris died at Jefferson University Hospital, two days after accepting a “courtesy ride” from Philadelphia police, then sustaining blunt-force head trauma from an unknown person or persons. 

Shortly after Morris’ death, a private citizen gave PGN numerous 911 recordings relating to the Morris courtesy ride. PGN compiled the recordings into a nine-page transcript and shared it with the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office in 2009. 

The recordings contradict police accounts that Morris could navigate on her own when she accepted the courtesy ride. Instead, the recordings corroborate medical findings that Morris was severely intoxicated. The recordings also tend to support an eyewitness account that a police officer placed Morris’ jacket over her face as she clung to life after her head injury. 

Open-records litigation 

PGN is currently involved in litigation with the D.A.’s Office over Morris 911 recordings believed to be in the D.A.’s possession.

The D.A.’s Office acknowledges that it has a copy of PGN’s transcript in its files. But during a recent court proceeding, the office stopped short of saying it considers the transcript a public record that must be provided to Right-to-Know Law requesters.

PGN posits that if the office doesn’t consider PGN’s transcript a public record, the office may have additional Morris 911 recordings that it’s withholding from the public. 

Justin F. Robinette, an attorney for PGN, recently filed a legal brief on behalf of the paper. A reply brief from the D.A.’s Office is due Jan. 8 and oral arguments are scheduled for Jan. 19 with Common Pleas Court Judge Abbe F. Fletman presiding.

“There can be no justice in Nizah’s case without transparency,” Robinette said. “It’s important that what happened to Nizah not be overlooked. She was beloved by many people, including her large and close-knit family. But as a trans woman of color, she was also marginalized by many people — even by some within our own LGBTQ+ community.”

Morris police report remains an issue 

Another controversial aspect of the Morris case is a police-incident report filed the morning of Morris’ fatal head injury.

Initially, police said no incident report was filed for the Morris case. But after a relative of Morris said she saw a police report among the papers of a detective, police released an altered version of the report. 

Prior to releasing the altered report, police actually sent a denial letter to PGN through the U.S. Postal Service, claiming there was no Morris police-incident report.

In 2011, in response to community pressure, police released an unaltered version of the Morris police report. That report ascribed two sexes and Jane Doe/John Doe pseudonyms to Morris. The unaltered report also has an investigation-control number, which was missing from the altered version.

Perhaps more troubling, the unaltered report puts the origin of the Morris incident in the wrong police district. It also fails to mention the courtesy ride, Morris’ life-threatening head injury and her attending physician’s belief that she was a crime victim. Instead, it labels Morris merely as a “hosp[ital] case.”

Local authorities withheld the unaltered report from the Police Advisory Commission for eight years — rendering PAC incapable of effectively questioning police about the Morris incident in 2006. 

But in 2013, after finally seeing the unaltered report, PAC took the unprecedented step of calling for state and federal probes of the Morris case. So far, no state or federal agency has agreed to review the case, but the D.A.’s Office says its Morris probe is ongoing.

Advocates hope that D.A.-elect Larry Krasner will carefully review the unaltered Morris police report and all Morris records in the D.A.’s files and elsewhere after he takes office on Jan. 8.

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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.