City opposes PGN’s request for transparency in Morris case

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Last week, city attorneys sought the dismissal of PGN’s motion for enforcement of a 2008 court order mandating transparency in the Nizah Morris case. The city’s April 9 filing states the city is in compliance with the court order, though numerous Morris homicide records remain off-limits to the public.

Morris, a beloved trans advocate, was discovered with a fatal head injury, shortly after receiving a “courtesy ride” from Philadelphia police in the Gayborhood. She died two days later, on Dec. 24, 2002. The following day, her death was declared a homicide due to blunt-force head trauma, which remains unsolved.

Morris’ police homicide file was reconstituted pursuant to a court order in 2008 after police lost their original file. Various agencies deposited records into a reconstituted file. The court granted PGN a copy of the reconstituted file to help ensure transparency. Agencies gave assurances their Morris records were deposited in the reconstituted file, according to the court order.

As additional Morris records were discovered, they were to be placed in the city’s reconstituted file and PGN was supposed to receive copies for its reconstituted file, according to the court order.

However, the District Attorney’s Office and the Police Advisory Commission (PAC) are withholding numerous documents for placement in PGN’s reconstituted file. The status of the city’s reconstituted file remains unclear.

On March 19, Andrew J. Thomson, an attorney with Edelstein Law, LLP, filed a motion in Philadelphia Common Pleas Court, asking the city to show cause why PGN isn’t entitled to a full investigative file of the death of Morris.

The city’s eight-page response maintains the city is in compliance with the 2008 court order. “The City has provided all documents covered by the Stipulated Order on numerous occasions dating back to 2008,” the April 9 response states.

In 2011, PGN received numerous Morris homicide records that were discovered in the city Archives Unit. In 2013, PGN received seven documents identified in a PAC report. And in 2018, PGN received a 46-page Internal Affairs report on the Morris incident. All of these records were deposited in PGN’s reconstituted Morris file.

But city attorneys say the PAC cannot provide additional Morris records it received from the DA’s office in 2011 due to a nondisclosure agreement. “Documents provided by the District Attorney’s Office to the Police Advisory Commission in 2011 were subject to a nondisclosure agreement that prohibits their release to any other entity or person,” the April 9 response states.

The response doesn’t contain verification that city attorneys asked the PAC or DA Larry Krasner for the additional records, though the 2008 court order places the responsibility for replenishing the reconstituted file on the City Solicitor’s Office as additional records come to light.

PGN’s position is that the 2008 court order wasn’t vacated due to the 2011 nondisclosure agreement between the PAC and the DA’s office. Thus, when the DA’s records were produced to the PAC in 2011, that should have triggered the production of the same records into PGN’s reconstituted homicide file.

“The City is in possession of documents that should have been given to PGN a decade ago when they were produced to the Police Advisory Commission,” said Thomson, PGN’s attorney, in an email. “After twenty years, the mystery shrouding these files that were given to a handful of mayoral appointees for review is baffling. The City’s position that it is bound by a confidentiality agreement with its own Police Department and DA’s office is both dubious and convenient. We hope that the Court disagrees with that position and orders the City to abide by its settlement agreement.”

A spokesperson for the Kenney administration had no comment for this update.

Many questions surrounding Morris’ death underscore the need for a comprehensive homicide file accessible to the public.

For example, Elizabeth Skala, an officer involved in the Morris courtesy ride, testified under oath at a Police Advisory Commission hearing that she was with Morris for about 16 minutes during the incident. Skala’s estimate would place her in the presence of Morris when she suffered a head injury, according to a timeline provided by 911 recordings.

The movements of two other officers during the courtesy ride — Thomas Berry and Kenneth Novak — also remain unclear. None has been charged with criminal wrongdoing in the Morris case. All three officers receive an annual salary of $78,092, according to city records.