Appeal filed in Morris case

Illustration by Ash Cheshire

Trans attorney Julie Chovanes filed a notice of appeal this week in Commonwealth Court, challenging a lower court’s ruling denying her access to records at the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office relating to the Nizah Morris incident.

In April 2018, Chovanes requested all records at the office relating to the Morris case, citing the state’s Right-to-Know Law. On Oct. 17, oral arguments were held before Common Pleas Court Judge Edward C. Wright.

Wright didn’t issue a ruling from the bench. But later that day, he issued a one-sentence ruling, stating that “this court affirms the decision of the District Attorney’s Office of Open Records [denying access to the requested records].” 

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.

During oral arguments, Catherine B. Kiefer, chief of the DA’s civil-litigation office, told Wright that state law prohibits the DA’s office from providing Chovanes with a copy of its Morris file. “Criminal files are not something we’re permitted to turn over,” Kiefer told the judge.

She said the Right-to-Know Law and the Criminal History Record Information Act preclude criminal records from being released to the public.

Kiefer also said the Morris homicide is “no different” than any other murder handled by the DA’s office, as far as releasing records is concerned. However, Kiefer overlooked a 2008 court order signed by Common Pleas Judge Jane C. Greenspan, calling for transparency in the Morris case. The DA’s office is named explicitly in the order as an agency that should cooperate with transparency in the Morris case.

For her part, Chovanes emphasized her concern that Morris was killed while in police custody. She told Wright that the courtesy ride began around 3:15 a.m. Dec. 22, 2002, and passing motorists found Morris just 10 minutes later with a fatal head wound at 16th and Walnut.

During oral arguments, Chovanes spoke passionately about the pervasive violence against trans people, particularly trans women of color. Chovanes also said the DA’s office presented no evidence of an investigation into Morris’ murder. Chovanes noted that since the DA’s office isn’t investigating the matter, its Morris records should be publicly accessible. 

Christine Starosta, an advocate for Morris, attended the Oct. 17 oral arguments.

“I’m glad that Julie isn’t just accepting the judge’s ruling without trying to see if someone else looking at it would see more possibilities,” Starosta told PGN. “You never know when something positive might happen. And it can’t happen unless you try. So I’m glad that she’s trying. I was really touched by her oral argument. It’s wonderful that she’s still keeping the case alive.”

Justine F. Robinette, a local attorney who’s following the case, praised Chovanes for her tenacity.

“Julie Chovanes is definitely a tenacious attorney dealing with a situation that many believe is a cover-up,” Robinette told PGN. “It’s disheartening to see the District Attorney’s Office continuing to shield these records from the public. DA Larry Krasner promised more transparency in this specific case. If anyone is going to be a sympathetic ear, it should be him. It’s inspiring to see that Ms. Chovanes is so committed to pursuing transparency and justice for Nizah.”

Cameron L. Kline, a spokesperson for the DA’s office, said in an email: “I can confirm the filing [of a notice of appeal], but because it is an active case, I can’t comment any further.”

Chovanes also declined to comment for this update.