Do police and DA have separate Morris probes?

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Last week, a city attorney told Common Pleas Judge Joshua H. Roberts that two separate investigations exist for the Nizah Morris case, one by police and one by the District Attorney’s Office. This assertion was made during a June 8 court hearing regarding PGN’s request for additional records in the case. Judge Roberts has also issued an order that both sides can issue subpoenas to various officials for information regarding why certain records in the Nizah Morris case aren’t publicly accessible.

The city is using its claim of two separate probes to support its position that PGN isn’t entitled to additional records. A 2008 court order says PGN is entitled access to the Morris “investigative file.” But the city asserts the file was only meant to include records generated by a police investigation. Records generated by a separate DA investigation don’t have to be included, according to the city.

PGN argues the file was meant to be comprehensive. Additionally, the paper argues the police and DA’s office jointly investigated Morris’ death in 2003. PGN seeks interviews located at the DA’s office with about 30 key witnesses for placement in the investigative file.  

Available homicide records suggests joint probe

Morris, 47, was a beloved advocate in the LGBTQ community. On Dec. 22, 2002, she received a “courtesy ride” from Philadelphia police in the Gayborhood. The ride ostensibly was to take Morris home because she was inebriated. But Morris lived three miles away in West Philadelphia. Shortly after the ride, Morris was found by passers-by with a fatal head injury. Her death was declared a homicide due to blunt-force head trauma. The crime remains unsolved.

In 2008, after police lost their Morris homicide file, PGN received numerous Morris records for a reconstituted “investigative file,” in accordance with a court order mandating transparency. The records placed in the file indicate police and the DA’s office in 2003 jointly investigated Morris’ death.

For example, an interview with Officer Elizabeth Skala, who gave Morris the courtesy ride, was conducted on April 16, 2003, by a detective assigned to the DA’s office identified as “Det. DiBlasi.” Notably, the interview was recorded on a form entitled “Philadelphia Police Department Homicide Division.” This form would suggest the 2003 Morris probe was conducted jointly by the police and DA’s office.

DA spokesperson in 2003 asserts joint probe 

In April 2003, when it was announced the DA’s office would investigate Morris’ homicide, spokesperson Cathie Abookire told PGN it would be a joint investigation with Philadelphia police. “We are taking a fresh look at the case, and we’re working in conjunction and in complete cooperation with the police department,” Abookire told PGN. This quote appears in the April 11, 2003, issue of PGN.

Lynne Abraham, who was Philadelphia’s district attorney at the time, also gave an interview to PGN indicating the police and DA’s office had a good working relationship regarding the Morris probe.

PAC opinion suggests joint investigation

The Police Advisory Commission reviewed the Morris case for about 10 years between 2003 and 2013. In 2011, the PAC obtained numerous interviews from the DA’s office that weren’t included in the reconstituted “investigative file.” City officials maintain those interviews can’t be added to the file due to a nondisclosure agreement with the DA’s office. In a 2013 Morris report issued by the PAC, these off-limit records were described as “Investigation Interview Records (PPD Homicide Division).” Such a description also suggests a joint police/DA probe in 2003.

During the June 8 hearing, PGN’s attorney A.J. Thomson of Edelstein Law LLP pointed out this description to the judge. It appears in a Nov. 7, 2013, letter from the city Law Department to PGN denying the paper’s request for the interviews. But a city attorney at the June 8 hearing emphasized the description didn’t originate from the city Law Department.

PGN appears to be the only entity investigating Morris case

Also during the June 8 hearing, Thomson told the judge that PGN appears to be the only entity investigating the Morris homicide. This assertion is buttressed by statements made by DA Larry Krasner during a March 31, 2021, Liberty City LGBT Democratic Club meeting.

“For God’s sake. It’s been, what, 15-plus years?” Krasner said. “There’s been no sign for 15-plus years that a prosecution actually was going to come from it [Morris case]. At a minimum, could the family members at least know what’s happened with the investigation, for a whole variety of reasons?”

During an April 6, 2018, press conference, Krasner stated: “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 more than I can say about a lot of cases because this is not one that is being prosecuted at this time.”

Moreover, officials at the DA’s office and the police department have repeatedly stated they don’t have any Morris 911 recordings in their homicide files. This would suggest that neither agency has a viable investigation of the Morris case. PGN has numerous 911 recordings relating to the Morris incident that are incriminating of police.

For example, Skala testified under oath to the PAC that she was with Morris for about 16 minutes during the courtesy-ride incident.  Skala’s estimate places her in the presence of Morris at the time of her fatal head injury, according to a timeline provided by the 911 recordings.

Additionally, the 911 recordings show that Morris had difficulty standing or walking without assistance. Yet police claimed Morris didn’t need any help to enter or exit Skala’s vehicle. Shortly after the courtesy ride, Morris was found by passers-by at 16th and Walnut, unconscious and bleeding from the head.

Roberts, the assigned judge, granted permission for both sides to issue subpoenas to various officials for more information about the Morris case. The judge also granted both sides permission to take depositions. A follow-up hearing has been scheduled for July 19.

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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.