D.A.’s Office: We don’t know if Morris 911 recordings are fake

 An open-records officer for the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office last week said he doesn’t know whether 911 recordings at the agency purporting to document the Nizah Morris incident are fabricated. 

PGN is involved in an open-records dispute with the D.A.’s Office. The paper claims a nine-page transcript of Morris 911 recordings typed by a PGN reporter and given to the office in 2009 must be produced to Right-to-Know Law requesters, upon payment of a reasonable copying fee. 

During oral arguments Jan. 19, ADA Douglas M. Weck Jr. said the office isn’t required to produce PGN’s transcript to Right-to-Know Law requesters. Weck also said he doesn’t know whether recordings contained in the transcript are fabrications.

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 and the D.A.’s Office maintains it has an ongoing investigation.

The 911 recordings contained in PGN’s transcript 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 show that the official police report puts the origin of the Morris incident in the wrong police district. If the report had cited the correct district of origin, responding officers couldn’t have avoided documenting the courtesy ride in paperwork submitted to supervisors. Instead, none of the responding officers documented the ride and subsequent crime in paperwork submitted to supervisors.

Upon questioning by Common Pleas Judge Abbe F. Fletman, Weck said the D.A.’s Office doesn’t have a legal obligation to determine the authenticity of PGN’s transcript, citing a Commonwealth Court ruling.

But Justin F. Robinette, an attorney for PGN, said it’s not necessary for the D.A.’s Office to vouch for the transcript’s authenticity when providing it to the public.

Providing the transcript to the public will help ensure the D.A.’s Office isn’t withholding additional Morris 911 recordings, Robinette added.

Weck also faulted the wording of PGN’s Right-to-Know Law request, noting that it seeks Morris 911 recordings originating at the Philadelphia Police Department.

Weck said that even if PGN’s transcript contains authentic Morris 911 recordings, they originated at the hands of a PGN reporter, not the police department.

But Robinette said the Morris 911 recordings contained in PGN’s transcript ultimately originated at the Philadelphia Police Department, thus they’re responsive to the paper’s pending request.

Weck also urged Fletman to declare PGN’s request “disruptive,” citing three similar requests filed by the paper since 2006. But when questioned by Fletman, Weck acknowledged the requests contain different wording.

Robinette said the paper is seeking accountability in the Morris case, adding that “all Philadelphians” should be concerned about the kind of investigation the Morris case is receiving.

At the conclusion of the 40-minute proceeding, Fletman said she would take the matter under advisement and issue a ruling at a later date. The judge also complimented both sides for filing “excellent” briefs in the case.