PGN continues pursuit of records in Morris case

Last week, attorneys for PGN filed a supplemental brief in Philadelphia Common Pleas Court, reiterating the paper’s request for additional records in the Nizah Morris case.

Morris, 47, was a beloved member of the local LGBT community who was discovered with a fatal head wound in December 2002, shortly after receiving a “courtesy ride” from Philadelphia police. Her homicide remains unsolved.

PGN is seeking enforcement of a 2008 court order requiring transparency in the case. The paper has received numerous records due to the court order. But the District Attorney’s Office is withholding about 30 interviews and legal memoranda that could help explain what happened to Morris.

The July 1 supplemental brief was written by Andrew J. Thomson of Edelstein Law LLP. It emphasizes that a joint police/DA investigation of the Morris case took place in 2003. Thus, a comprehensive Morris homicide file should exist that both agencies and PGN have access to, pursuant to the court order.

City attorneys argue that two separate Morris probes exist, one by the police and one by the DA’s office. City attorneys say PGN is entitled to Morris records relating to the police probe, not the DA’s probe. But PGN’s July 1 brief refutes that position.

“To believe the City’s position on these documents, one must believe that two separate crime fighting agencies have an ongoing investigation into Nizah Morris’ death, but one entity has a bunch of information, originally in the possession of both, that it will not share with the other,” the brief states. “Accordingly, these parallel investigations of the 20-year-old murder involve a significant number of police interviews that the [DA’s office] is keeping from the police department’s files. Also, only one copy of all of these documents exist. Puff the Magic Dragon is more plausible.”

The brief emphasizes the city Law Department’s obligation to carry out the court order. “Any common sense reading of this Order demonstrates that these ‘missing’ documents should have been given to the City of Philadelphia to complete the Investigative File when this order was entered in 2008,” the filing asserts. “The City has the duty to produce them. It agreed to do so as part of then-Mayor Nutter’s commitment to transparency. If it does not have them, it has the mechanism to force the District Attorney’s Office to produce them.”

The brief adds that the city Law Department should have sued the DA’s office for the withheld records, to ensure a comprehensive police homicide file. “The affirmative duty is on the City to complete the police department’s file,” the brief states.

Additionally, the brief asserts that city officials are playing a “shell game.” 

“While the City’s stated position from the outset of this litigation and at the hearing on the matter in June is that these records are in the possession of the District Attorney’s Office and that, aw shucks, the city would produce them if they could — this shell game must come to an end,” the filing states. 

Moreover, the filing quotes extensively from recent public statements made by DA Larry Krasner, indicating his desire to release “a very large chunk if not all” of the Morris file. Krasner made that assertion during a March 31, 2021, Liberty City LGBT Democratic Club meeting.

However, Krasner also cited the state Criminal History Records Information Act, which limits public access to criminal records. PGN’s brief notes the DA’s office has already released numerous Morris records for placement in the police investigative file. 

The brief points out that the city’s Police Advisory Commission received numerous Morris records from the DA’s office in 2011 that should be shared with the police. “What the city is saying is that the PAC knows more about the murder of Nizah Morris than the police department,” the filing asserts.

The brief adds: “These games must stop. The DA waived its privilege when it produced these documents to the PAC. Further, it has produced numerous other documents and waived privilege on them. These documents are part of the Police Investigative File and must be turned over to the Philadelphia Police Department as required under the stipulated order.”

A follow-up hearing on the dispute is scheduled for July 19. PGN has subpoenaed Krasner to attend the hearing and to bring with him the office’s entire Morris file. Additional information was unavailable as of presstime.