Morris anniversary haunted by lingering questions

Nizah Morris

This week marks the 16th anniversary of the death Nizah Morris — a homicide that still haunts the local LGBT community.

The transgender woman of color was found with a fatal head injury during the pre-dawn hours of Dec. 22, 2002, minutes after receiving a courtesy ride in the Gayborhood from Philadelphia police. She died 64 hours later, after her attending physician had her removed from life support at Jefferson University Hospital.

Her homicide remains unsolved.

Officers Kenneth Novak, Elizabeth Skala and Thomas Berry responded to Morris on the morning that she was fatally injured. None has been charged with any criminal wrongdoing related to the case. But their version of events raises troubling questions that linger to this day.

For example, Skala told investigators she gave Morris a ride from the old Key West Bar near 13th and Walnut streets to 15th and Walnut, where she thought Morris lived. But advocates for Morris noted the victim lived 3 miles away, in West Philadelphia. Moreover, the area of 15th and Walnut streets isn’t residential, and wasn’t at the time of Morris’ death either.

Dozens of investigative records currently off-limits to the public could clear up some questions surrounding Morris’ death. One particularly questionable aspect was a police report by Berry, the officer who responded to Morris at 16th and Walnut after her head injury.

In 2003, police sent a letter to PGN claiming that none of the responding officers wrote a police report about the Morris incident. But after a relative of Morris informed newspaper staff that she saw a police report among the papers of a detective investigating the case, police acknowledged that Berry wrote a report.

Berry’s report describes Morris as a “hospital case,” found with a “cut on head.” The report doesn’t mention the cut was deep enough to produce blood. The report also doesn’t mention the courtesy ride or that Jefferson Hospital personnel thought Morris was a crime victim.

Inexplicably, Berry’s report states that Morris was possibly “transexual [sic].” Such speculation in a police report about a hospital case is unusual, as the LGBT status of someone transported to a hospital is irrelevant.

Berry has never publicly explained why he speculated about Morris’ LGBT status in his police report.

Berry’s report also is puzzling because he went to Jefferson Hospital about two hours after medics transported Morris there. The officer could have spoken to Morris’ attending physician, documented the severity of Morris’ wounds and reported her as a crime victim. But the available evidence suggests he did none of those things.

Instead, Novak assumed control of the investigation at Jefferson. It was Novak and Skala who spoke to Morris’ attending physician about her condition. Since neither Novak nor Skala wrote a police report, it’s unclear why they were questioning the doctor.

Another disturbing aspect of the case occurred at 16th and Walnut, where Berry allegedly placed Morris’ jacket over her face as she was clinging to life. A witness, Paul Brennan, testified to the Police Advisory Commission in 2006 that he saw this and believed Morris was dead — until he subsequently read in PGN that Morris actually lived for another 64 hours.

When questioned by PAC member Robert S. Nix in 2006, Berry didn’t unequivocally deny placing Morris’ jacket over her face. The following is an excerpt from Berry’s PAC testimony:

 Nix: “There was testimony earlier in these proceedings that when Miss Morris was placed on the stretcher, on a gurney, that you placed her jacket over her head, over her face, over her upper body. Did that occur?”

Berry: “I don’t remember that, no.”

Nix: “But you did not, to your recollection now, place her jacket, when she was on the gurney, on her person as she was being taken away?”

Berry: “I don’t recall.”

The PPD declined PGN’s request to interview Berry, Novak and Skala for this story and for past articles as well.

In April, Julie Chovanes, a local trans attorney, filed a state Right-to-Know Law request for access to all records and evidentiary items at the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office relating to the Morris case. At presstime, Chovanes’ request remained pending.