Paperwork submitted by Morris officers indicates deception

For years, advocates of Nizah Morris have expressed concern that police officers who responded to her on the morning of her fatal head injury colluded to cover-up the crime. An analysis of available evidence indicates that if the officers did so, they also feigned confusion regarding who was responsible for investigating the incident.

Morris, 47, was a beloved trans woman of color found by passers-by with blunt-force head trauma in the pre-dawn hours of December 22, 2002 — shortly after receiving a courtesy ride in the Gayborhood from Officer Elizabeth Skala. 

Skala worked as a team with Officer Kenneth Novak, who said he knew about the courtesy ride but didn’t get involved. Another officer, Thomas Berry, said he offered to help Morris exit Skala’s vehicle at the conclusion of the ride near 15th and Walnut. A few minutes later, Berry responded to Morris at 16th and Walnut, where she was lying unconscious and bleeding from the head.

Morris was inebriated and Skala said she thought Morris needed a ride to her residence at 15th and Walnut. But Morris actually lived three miles away in West Philadelphia. Her homicide remains unsolved and PGN is in the midst of litigation to obtain more records about the case.

Officers didn’t make real-time entries in patrol logs

The available evidence indicates that Novak, Skala and Berry didn’t make real-time entries in their patrol logs as the Morris incident unfolded. Instead, they completed their paperwork after visiting Morris at Jefferson Hospital and concluding she was merely a “hospital case.” That descriptor was used for every reference to Morris in their paperwork. Thus, none of the officers documented the courtesy ride though all of them knew about it.

Two options at Jefferson 

At Jefferson Hospital, the officers had two basic options for a descriptor for Morris: “hospital case” or crime victim. But the crime-victim descriptor would be more complicated for the officers, because it could prompt in-depth questioning by detectives. 

Such questioning could reveal the courtesy ride’s existence and trigger a review of the officers’ movements, their clothing, Morris’ clothing, their vehicles, their weapons, Morris’ injuries and other aspects of the case.

If the officers concluded Morris was merely a “hospital case,” no follow-up questioning from detectives would be triggered. That’s because foul play isn’t suspected with a simple “hospital case.”

As stated above, all three officers concluded Morris was a “hospital case.” That would be her descriptor throughout their paperwork. There would be no documentation of the courtesy ride. 

But there was a glaring problem with that approach: Novak and Skala worked as a team based in the sixth police district. They had a different supervisor than Berry, who worked on his own out of the ninth police district.

Either there could be a Novak/Skala investigation or a Berry investigation — but not both. The officer(s) left out of the investigation would have to document the courtesy ride as a stand-alone entry in their paperwork, rather than obscure it as part of a “hospital case” investigation.

Officers ostensibly confused about who’s investigating

The available evidence indicates the officers got around that problem by feigning confusion about who was investigating at Jefferson. Though all three officers visited Morris around the same time, the official story appears to be that Novak and Skala thought they were doing the investigation — and Berry thought he was doing it.

In other words, the left hand ostensibly didn’t know what the right hand was doing. That is the only plausible explanation for the officers’ paperwork, at this time. 

Thus, all three officers were able to turn in paperwork describing Morris solely as a “hospital case.” They evidently hoped the matter was disposed of when they left work around 7:45 a.m. that morning.

It wasn’t until several days later — after the medical examiner declared Morris’ death a homicide on Dec. 25, 2002 — that investigators began to unravel the thread and realize Morris was inside a police vehicle shortly before her head injury. 

Remarkably, the Police Advisory Commission — which reviewed the case for 10 years — never asked Novak, Berry and Skala to elaborate about the investigation at Jefferson. Attempts by PGN over the years to interview the officers have been unsuccessful.

All three officers remain on the city payroll, receiving an annual salary of $78,092. None has been charged with any criminal wrongdoing regarding the Morris case.

This analysis was based on numerous homicide records gathered by the writer since 2003. Admittedly, other records that remain off-limits to the public could alter the analysis, if they’re ever released.

PGN’s request for additional Morris records remains pending before Philadelphia Common Pleas Judge Joshua H. Roberts. A decision by Roberts hadn’t been issued as of presstime. Efforts to obtain the records directly from District Attorney Larry Krasner have been unavailing despite his prior statements indicating support for transparency in the case.

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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.