Advocate seeks support from city agency in Morris case

The city’s Police Advisory Commission this week agreed to consider passing a resolution urging the release of city records relating to the Nizah Morris case.

Trans attorney Julie Chovanes made the request for the resolution during a PAC public meeting in South Philadelphia on April 16. Chovanes is a member of the Justice for Nizah Committee, which seeks transparency in the 15-year-old case.

The PAC is a city-funded watchdog group that investigates police-misconduct complaints and recommends policy changes when deemed necessary. It has six staffers and an annual budget of about $750,000. In August, Mayor Jim Kenney appointed nine new members to the 13-member commission.

Morris was a trans woman of color found with a fatal head injury shortly after receiving a Center City courtesy ride from police. The December 2002 homicide remains unsolved.

Numerous records relating to the Morris case remain off-limits to the public, including a 50-page Police Internal Affairs investigative file and several witness interviews.

PAC chair Ronda B. Goldfein said the commission will review a written request from Chovanes for passage of a resolution. But Goldfein cautioned that it may not be possible for every Morris record in the city’s possession to be publicly accessible due to legal constraints.

Goldfein said the PAC conducted a thorough review of the Morris case prior to issuing a series of recommendations in 2013. They included a specific police directive regarding courtesy rides, enhanced diversity training for police, and state and federal probes of the Morris homicide.

“We’ve consistently supported transparency in this case,” Goldfein said.

Chovanes said she’ll submit a written request for the resolution shortly. The lawyer also told PAC members she recently filed a Right-to-Know Request for copies of all Morris records at the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office. On April 16, the office invoked a 30-day extension prior to rendering a decision on Chovanes’ request.

After the PAC meeting, Naiymah Sanchez, a trans woman and a PAC commissioner, reiterated her support for publicly accessible Morris records. “As a community member and a PAC commissioner, I support total transparency in the Nizah Morris case,” Sanchez told PGN.

Transparency would help bring peace for Morris’ spirit, her family and the larger community, Sanchez added.

On April 6, D.A. Larry Krasner stated publicly that he would “welcome” a meeting with Morris advocates to discuss concerns about the case. “I can say a little more than I can say about a lot of cases because this is not one that is being prosecuted at this time,” Krasner said, in response to a question posed by a PGN reporter.

As of press time, a meeting with Krasner hadn’t been scheduled.

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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.