Why we need to care about unsolved trans deaths

Nizah Morris. Rita Hester. Marsha P. Johnson. Three icons in the trans community. Three unsolved deaths. Marsha P. Johnson is famous worldwide for her role in the LGBTQ rights movement. Rita Hester is the reason we have the Transgender Day of Remembrance each November. And if you read PGN regularly, you know Nizah Morris’ story, at least the part that authorities have allowed to come to light.

There’s always an argument floating around that we should care more about the living than we do the dead. After all, the dead have no stake in what happens to us. They can’t get sick. They can’t feel pain. They can’t be burned or beaten or killed. They’re already gone, at rest. Anything we believe about the dead — spiritually, psychologically or otherwise — matters only as far as our own prejudice. We can be inspired and comforted by those who have left us, and our memory of them can drive us to be better people, but ultimately, we reap the results, not them.

And yet, there are important, wide-sweeping reasons why we should care about the dead, specifically those whose deaths have never been explained. 

Historically, around 42 percent of investigations into trans murders results in an arrest. That’s significantly lower than the 61 percent arrest rate across all murder investigations. The reasons why the rate is so much lower are varied: a general distrust of law enforcement in the trans community, specifically among Black and Brown trans people, as well as a lack of legal, cultural and social resources to name a few. Another reason for the lower arrest rate is the perception that law enforcement simply doesn’t care about trans murders as much as cisgender murders. More on that in a second.

One bright spot in this ever upsetting topic is that in 2020, all three investigations into violent acts against trans people in Philadelphia — the murders of Dominique Rem’mie Fells and Mia Green, and the violent assault against Kendall Stephens — have led to arrests. It makes one think, logically, that if Nizah Morris’ death had happened today, the investigation would have been successful.

Actually, that is not true. 

It’s very possible that if Nizah Morris’ death happened today, under the same circumstances, the case would still go unsolved.

Of the three reported violent acts against trans people in 2020 in Philadelphia, all of the apprehended suspects were civilians. But in the case of Nizah Morris, all the information we currently have points to a Philadelphia Police Officer, who gave Morris a “courtesy ride” on December 22, 2002, as the last person to see Morris before she sustained a fatal head wound. Further information shows that police patrol logs documented Morris solely within the context of being a “hospital case,” which would allow officers to avoid documenting neither the courtesy ride nor the fatal head wound.

There is information that could help shed light on what happened to Nizah Morris, including an interview with the officer who gave Morris the courtesy ride. The interview was conducted by the District Attorney’s Office as part of an investigation into Morris’ death. The District Attorney’s Office continually refuses to release it to the public, citing the Criminal History Record Information Act. The refusal comes despite DA Krasner expressing a desire for transparency in the Morris case at a March 2021 Liberty City event.

The Philadelphia Police Department still has an open investigation into the death of Nizah Morris. Yet as far as we know, they have made no efforts to obtain that interview, which is currently in the sole possession of the District Attorney’s Office. It begs the question: if the investigation is still ongoing, is any work actively being done to solve the case? It seems like requesting that interview would be an important step.

Let’s summarize this: an interview with the most likely last person to see Nizah Morris before her fatal head wound is currently in the possession of the District Attorney’s Office. The DAO refuses to share that interview (along with about 30 other files related to the case) with the public. And the Philadelphia Police Department has an open investigation into the death of Nizah Morris, but they have not requested any of the DAO records, including the aforementioned interview. 

An important note: If the DAO records were to become part of the PPD case file on Nizah Morris, the PPD would have to provide those records to PGN due to a 2008 court order for transparency in the case.

Two questions, then. One: does the PPD have a specific reason for not requesting the DAO files on Nizah Morris, including the interview with the PPD officer who gave Morris the courtesy ride? Two: aside from citing the Criminal History Record Information Act, does the District Attorney’s Office have another reason for not sharing their Morris files with PGN or the public, when said files could help shed light on what happened?

For more details on the events leading up to Nizah Morris’ death, I’d suggest reading Tim Cwiek’s 18 years of thorough reporting. In the meantime, we at PGN will continue to work to see justice served for Nizah’s family, and we’ll continue to work to point out the need for change in policies and procedures that allow investigations of trans deaths to go unsolved.