Oral arguments scheduled in Morris 911 case

Oral arguments are scheduled this week in PGN’s open-records request for 911 recordings relating to the Nizah Morris incident at the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office.

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.

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 D.A.’s Office in 2009.

The recordings contradict police accounts that Morris could navigate on her own when accepting the courtesy ride. Instead, the recordings corroborate medical findings that Morris was severely intoxicated.

The recordings also show that the official police report puts the origin of the Morris incident in the wrong police district.

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

PGN contends that if the D.A.’s 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, filed a legal brief on behalf of the paper in December. A reply brief from the D.A.’s Office was filed earlier this month.

“The D.A.’s attestation of non-existence simply states that no records were located in response to a Right-to-Know Law request on Nov. 12, 2015, and another on Dec. 28, 2016,” Robinette told PGN. “The D.A.’s position is inconsistent with the spirit of the Right-to-Know Law. Any Philadelphia citizen should be able to request 911 recordings relating to Nizah Morris’ homicide and be provided what the D.A. has in its possession, custody, or control. There’s no legitimate reason to treat PGN any differently under the law.”

Robinette said the D.A.’s brief also argues that the requested records are investigation materials protected by a criminal-investigative exemption and a prior court order. 

“But if the records don’t exist, then there’s nothing to exempt from disclosure,” Robinette noted.

Robinette also noted that the D.A.’s Office asked the court to declare PGN’s request “disruptive” on the basis that PGN has filed multiple Right-to-Know Law requests for Morris 911 recordings. Robinette expressed concern with that strategy, stating it could have a “chilling effect” on efforts for transparency in the Morris case.

A spokesperson for the D.A.’s Office couldn’t be reached for comment by presstime.

Oral arguments are scheduled for 10 a.m. Jan. 19 in Courtroom 426 of City Hall, with Common Pleas Judge Abbe F. Fletman presiding. Details of the hearing were not available by presstime.