Legal brief filed in Morris case

Trans attorney Julie Chovanes filed a legal brief in Philadelphia Common Pleas Court this week urging transparency in the Nizah Morris case.

Morris, 47, was a trans woman of color who was found with a fractured skull in 2002, shortly after getting a police “courtesy ride” from the area of 13th and Walnut to 16th and Walnut. Her homicide remains unsolved.

In April 2018, Chovanes filed a Right-to-Know Law request with the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office, seeking all Morris-related records at the office. Settlement talks broke down recently, and Chovanes filed her legal brief on August 5.

Chovanes’ brief relies heavily on a statement by D.A. Larry Krasner during a February 2018 press conference. In response to a question by PGN, Krasner said: “In reference to the Nizah Morris case, which is not a pending criminal matter in this office, as you know. It happened many years ago and charges were not brought, although there was a civil lawsuit around it. I can say a little bit more than I can say about a lot of cases because this is not something that is being prosecuted at this time.”

Chovanes contends that since the D.A.’s Office isn’t investigating the matter, its Morris records should be publicly accessible. But so far the D.A.’s Office has declined to release its records to Chovanes, other than a nine-page transcript of Morris 911 recordings transcribed by a PGN reporter.

The D.A.’s Office has until Sept. 2 to file a reply brief. Oral arguments are tentatively set for 9 a.m. Oct. 7 in  City Hall Courtroom 243, with Common Pleas Judge Edward C. Wright presiding.

The Morris case has been plagued by irregularities. For example, Officer Elizabeth Skala told investigators she thought Morris lived at 15th and Walnut and gave her a lift to that area. But Morris lived three miles away in West Philadelphia.

Before giving the ride, Skala canceled medics who were summoned to take Morris to a hospital due to her being intoxicated. Shortly after the ride, Morris was discovered by passing motorists at 16th and Walnut with blunt-force head trauma. She died 64 hours later, on Dec. 24, 2002.

Skala and two other officers — Kenneth Novak and Thomas Berry — knew about the courtesy ride, but none of them documented it in their patrol logs. They also didn’t document that Morris was a crime victim. Instead, she was referred to in their logs as a “hospital case” — police jargon for someone taken to a hospital who isn’t a crime victim.

In 2003, the police department misplaced its entire Morris homicide file. Eight years later, some of those records were located in the city Archives Unit. But many records remain missing, including a complete set of 911 recordings relating to the incident.

In 2013, the Police Advisory Commission called for independent probes of the Morris homicide by the state Attorney General’s Office and the U.S. Attorney’s Office. But so far, neither agency has agreed to review of the case. The Morris incident is the only PAC case that resulted in a call for state and federal probes.