Attorneys renew efforts for Morris documents

Last month, a Center City law firm sent a demand letter to the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office on behalf of PGN, seeking all documents in the office’s possession relating to the death of Nizah Morris. 

The June 20 letter was sent by the Edelstein Law Firm urging the DA’s Office to honor a 2008 stipulated order signed by Common Pleas Judge Jane Cutler Greenspan which mandated transparency in the 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.

PGN obtained the stipulated order in 2008 after the Philadelphia Police Department announced that its entire Morris homicide file was missing. Under the order, the DA’s Office was supposed to contribute its Morris documents to a reconstituted Morris homicide file that would be accessible to the public.

The DA’s Office did contribute some of its Morris documents to the reconstituted file. However, in 2011 it became publicly known that the DA’s Office withheld dozens of additional Morris documents — including interviews with three police officers involved in the courtesy ride and a supervisor. The DA’s Office provided these additional documents to the city’s Police Advisory Commission in 2011, after the PAC signed a nondisclosure agreement, preventing their release to the public. Efforts by the public to obtain these additional documents directly from the PAC have been unavailing.

“For eighteen years, justice has been denied to Nizah, all who cared about her, and all of the citizens of Philadelphia — as her killer walks free,” wrote attorney Andrew J. Thomson in the June 20 demand letter to the DA’s Office. “Transgender citizens have long been subject to hate and discrimination in our town and in our nation. Even in death, Nizah Morris suffered ill treatment in the investigation to find the person responsible. In the end, we seek the same as you: Justice.”

Working alongside Thomson is attorney Jay L. Edelstein, chairman of the Edelstein Law Firm. As of presstime, the DA’s Office hadn’t responded to the firm’s demand letter. A spokesperson for the DA’s Office couldn’t be reached for comment.

A copy of the June 20 demand letter also was sent to City Solicitor Marcel S. Pratt, because the city’s Law Department was instrumental in reconstituting the police department’s Morris homicide file back in 2008. 

A spokesperson for the Kenney Administration issued the following statement: “The City has provided all documents covered by the Stipulated Order on numerous occasions dating back to 2008. The last request came in July 2018, and the City fully released the [Morris] Internal Affairs Division file PGN requested to PGN’s attorney. While the release of such records is not common practice and not required under the state’s Right-to-Know Law or the Stipulated Order, the [Kenney] Administration agreed to the release in the interest of transparency. We received no further communication until another attorney sent a letter in June 2020 demanding additional documents. The City has fully complied with the Stipulated Order.” 

In a related development, trans attorney Julie Chovanes told PGN she’s continuing her quest to obtain Morris records at the DA’s Office through a state Right-to-Know Law request. Her most recent RTKL request was filed on June 8, but it was denied by the DA’s Office on July 15. Chovanes said she intends to pursue the matter in court, if necessary. A prior RTKL request Chovanes filed with the DA’s Office for Morris records was denied in March 2019. 

“Just recently we’ve learned of two separate acts of horrific violence against two Black trans women here in the city,” Chovanes said. “And the city responded by saying we have to do everything we can to stop this violence. Yet, on the other hand, for more than 17 years the city has withheld documents about Nizah Morris — a Black trans woman apparently fatally wounded while in city custody. So, if the city wants to do everything it can to stop the violence, release the Morris documents.”

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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.