Internal Affairs file for Morris incident lacks key evidence

Nizah Morris

The official Internal Affairs Division investigative file for the Nizah Morris incident was released last week but doesn’t contain key evidence about the 2002 murder, including a police report written by an officer who responded to Morris and part of a patrol log filled out by another responding officer.

Morris was a trans woman of color who was found by passersby with a fatal head injury, shortly after she received a Center City courtesy ride from Officer Elizabeth Skala in December 2002. Morris died two days later, and, more than 15 years later, her murder remains unsolved.

After IAD completed its Morris investigation in 2005, PGN requested a copy of the file.  However, city attorneys maintained its contents were confidential. On July 5, they reversed their position and released a copy of the file. Prior to its release, trans attorney Julie Chovanes indicated she would file a civil action to procure the file, if necessary.

“We are continuing to make progress on the goal of city transparency with respect to the death of Nizah Morris,” Chovanes told PGN this week.

The 46-page IAD file includes the front side of a double-sided patrol log filled out by Officer Kenneth Novak on the morning of Morris’ head injury. But the file doesn’t include the log’s reverse side, which contains its only entries relating to Morris.

Novak and Skala were dispatched to investigate Morris outside the old Key West Bar, where she was intoxicated, during the pre-dawn hours of Dec. 22, 2002. 

Skala arrived at Key West first and reportedly gave Morris a three-block ride to the area of 16th and Walnut streets — where passersby found Morris bleeding from a head wound. It remains unclear why Skala only transported Morris three blocks when the ride was supposed to terminate at her home in West Philadelphia.

Several years after Morris’ death, PGN obtained a copy of Novak’s log. Its reverse side contains entries that document Morris as a “hospital case” from start to finish. Yet Novak admitted to homicide investigators in 2003 that he didn’t consider Morris to be a “hospital case” during the courtesy ride. Thus, his log entries remain puzzling.

Novak’s exact whereabouts during the ride are unclear. In his 2005 IAD interview, Novak said he was driving his police car in the general vicinity of the courtesy ride, but didn’t come across Skala. He also indicated he knew very little about the ride. “I didn’t speak to P/O Skala about Ms. Morris,” he told an interviewer, and the subject wasn’t pursued.

Skala’s patrol log, which is included in its entirety in the IAD  file, has vague entries documenting the Morris incident as “H/C” — an abbreviation for “hospital case.” In an interview that’s included in the IAD file, Skala isn’t questioned about her “H/C” designation for Morris.

Also not included in the IAD file is a police report written by Officer Thomas Berry, who responded to Morris at 16th and Walnut streets after her head injury. Prior to writing his report, Berry went to Jefferson University Hospital, where Morris’ attending physician voiced concern that she was a crime victim.

Yet Berry’s report — which wasn’t released in its entirety until 2011 — documents the Morris incident as a “hospital case” all the way from the beginning of the police intervention, with no mention of the possibility that Morris was a crime victim.

Additionally, Berry’s report fails to mention the courtesy ride — though Berry admitted to investigators that he knew about the ride and was present when Morris exited Skala’s vehicle.

It also remains unclear why Berry wrote a report about the Morris incident rather than Skala or Novak. Typically, a responding officer doesn’t write a report about a hospital case unless the officer transports the person somewhere. It was Skala who transported Morris three blocks, not Berry. At Jefferson, Novak assumed control of the investigation, yet he inexplicably had Berry write a report.

Berry’s patrol log isn’t included in the IAD file. But several years after Morris’ death, PGN obtained a copy of Berry’s log and it corroborates the logs of Novak and Skala: All of them Berry’s log entries document the Morris incident as a hospital case from start to finish.

Advocates for Morris have long been concerned that all three officers colluded and falsified official records to conceal from supervisors the courtesy ride and subsequent crime against Morris.

IAD investigators determined in 2005 that Skala violated two police directives in the handling of a hospital case and the handling of an “intoxicated person in police custody.” However, the file doesn’t contain information regarding the type of discipline Skala received, if any.

Novak and Berry weren’t cited for any departmental violations, according to the IAD file. A police spokesperson had no comment regarding the issue of discipline in the Morris case. The spokesperson also had no comment about the IAD file not including the reverse side of Novak’s patrol log, Berry’s police report and Berry’s patrol log.