Officer’s timing estimate puts her at scene of Morris homicide

 As Philadelphia police investigate the city’s most recent killing of a transgender woman, the nearly 16-year-old unsolved homicide of Nizah Morris could come down to 16 minutes.

That’s how long Officer Elizabeth Skala estimated she was with Morris during the police courtesy-ride incident that preceded Morris’ fatal head wound on a Center City street corner in December 2002. If Skala’s estimate is accurate, it places the officer with Morris when she suffered the injury that ultimately led to her death.

A passing motorist found Morris, a 47-year-old trans woman and a popular entertainer, unconscious at 16th and Walnut streets shortly after Skala had transported her to the intersection in a police car.

In a recently discovered transcript of a 2006 Police Advisory Commission inquiry of Skala, PAC member Adam Rodgers asked the officer how much time she spent with Morris during the courtesy-ride incident. Rodgers’ question was prompted by Skala’s patrol log, which indicated the officer was with Morris between 3:10-3:26 a.m. on Dec. 22, 2002.

“For the record, your best estimate is she’s with you for 16 minutes and you dropped her off?” Rodgers asked Skala.

“Yes,” Skala replied, according to the official transcript of the PAC hearing.

During her PAC testimony, Skala maintained she didn’t know what caused the injury. She testified that the courtesy ride began outside the old Key West Bar, near 13th and Walnut streets, and ended at 15th and Walnut, where Skala thought Morris was residing.

The officer said she was certain Morris wasn’t injured when she entered and exited her police vehicle because she shielded Morris’ head from the top of the vehicle’s door.

“I remember putting — which I know because I always do — I put my hand over her head so that it doesn’t hit the top of the door,” Skala testified.

Morris also wished the officer “Merry Christmas” as she was walking away after exiting the police car, Skala said.

But advocates of Morris have scoffed at the officer’s testimony, noting Morris lived in West Philadelphia and that she would have been too intoxicated to walk away from Skala’s vehicle without assistance.

Philadelphia police had no comment this week on Skala’s PAC testimony and her time estimate with Morris. Skala couldn’t be reached.

In April, Julie Chovanes, a local trans attorney, filed a state Right-to-Know Law request for all records relating to the Morris homicide in the possession of the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office. Her request is still pending.

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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.