We still need justice for Nizah Morris

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Illustration by Ash Cheshire

Protesters are demanding change and the defunding of police units across the nation as a result of the police killing of George Floyd. In Philadelphia, one woman’s death after contact with the police has still not been solved. 

Nizah Morris was a trans woman of color found with a fractured skull in 2002, “shortly after” receiving a “courtesy ride” from police. 

PGN has followed this case from the beginning. Over the last 17 years, the handling of Morris’ case has produced many irregularities and concerns.

Elizabeth Skala, the officer who gave Morris a ride from old Key West Bar, told investigators she thought Morris lived at 15th and Walnut streets and therefore dropped Morris off there. But, Morris lived three miles away in West Philadelphia. Before the ride, Skala called off medics who would have taken Morris to a hospital due to intoxication. Officers Skala, Kenneth Novak and Thomas Berry said they knew of the ride, but did not document it in patrol logs. After Morris suffered the head injury that would kill her 64 hours later, she was labeled a “hospital case,” found with a “cut on [her] head,” rather than a “crime victim.”

The police department misplaced the entire Morris homicide file in 2003. Eight years later, only some of the records were found in the city Archives Unit. Many are still missing.

If Krasner released Morris’ records, perhaps our community and the Black community would have answers we desperately need, especially now, when government officials might be listening — after far too long of not. Rizzo’s statue came down. The police budget will not be increased this year. But what about individuals who may have died at the hands of police? What about transparency? 

In October, trans attorney Julie Chovanes was denied a request for records relating to the Nizah Morris case by Philadelphia Common Pleas Court Judge Edward C. Wright. During the hearing, Wright said, “We all have to live together in harmony in this city.”

Well, we are not living in harmony now. Harmony is a long way off. But accountability for the police is one step toward equity. District Attorney Larry Krasner is a known progressive, but he is responsible for not releasing Morris’ records. 

His office claims the case is open in court documents, in order to withhold records. But Chovanes’ request to release records depended on a public statement given by Krasner in February 2018 when answering a question from PGN: “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.”

We deserve the truth of what happened to Nizah Morris in 2002. She died in or very near to the hands of police and was given no respect as a victim of crime. It’s time we have answers.