Police and district attorney handling of Nizah Morris case reveals flaws in state law

Nizah Morris.

When Naiymah Sanchez remembers the people she looked up to as a young woman in the Philadelphia community, the names that come to mind are those of the trans women she met at her local community center.

“As a young trans person, we didn’t have this representation, so coming out into the queer community, this is where I got that introduction to people like me — who identified like me when I didn’t have the language to say this is who I was,” said Sanchez, who now works as the Transgender Coordinator for the ACLU-PA. “It was all of these older trans women that I grew up to know and embrace as elders, but also as aunties and mothers in this community.”

So, in December 2002, when she heard the news that Nizah Morris, one of those women, died after she was found in the street with a head wound, it was the first time Sanchez had heard of an instance of violence against another transgender person. Even as it was found that Morris’s death came directly after taking a courtesy ride from police, it didn’t even register to Sanchez that law enforcement could have been the cause. 

Now, while a brighter light has been shed on the prevalence of violence against trans people of color, the details around Morris’s death — now almost 19 years ago — have remained in the dark. Despite consistent pressure from community members, law enforcement officials have been able to use Pennsylvania’s Criminal History Record Information Act (CHRIA) to justify withholding information that could illuminate the circumstances of Morris’s death.

Under CHRIA, law enforcement agencies are obligated to provide criminal history record information — which could be anything from descriptions of suspects, dates of arrests and other valuable records — to those who request it, except in cases when there is an active, ongoing investigation. In March 2021 during a Liberty City Democratic Club forum, District Attorney Krasner listed CHRIA as a reason why files that PGN has been seeking could be withheld.

In Morris’s case, PGN has fought for years against the Philadelphia Police Department and the District Attorney’s Office to obtain select police accounts and over 30 witness testimonies that could shed light on Morris’s death. However, the missing records are with the DA’s office, which conducted its own investigation, and access to those has been prohibited. Additionally, the police claim to still be actively investigating Morris’s death — even though the case is almost 20 years old and it appears no one is looking into it.

In 2008, PGN received a court order signed by a Philadelphia judge mandating transparency in the Morris case. Subsequent to the order, PGN learned that the DA’s office possessed many Morris records that it has refused to turn over. PGN filed an enforcement request for those records earlier in March of this year. However, the request was denied by another Philadelphia judge in July.

Paula Knudsen Burke, a local legislative attorney for the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, wrote the amicus brief for the enforcement request. In it, she argues that law enforcement agencies should not be able to just use CHRIA broadly and simply deem all records as “investigative” in order to prevent those who request them from obtaining them.

“Instead, a court should review — on a case-by-case basis — the specific information in the requested records to determine if its “investigative information” that may be excluded from public access,” the brief argues.

Part of the added frustration, Burke said, is that CHRIA is usually lumped in with the Right to Know Act. In Pennsylvania, Burke explained, criminal records under investigation can be held indefinitely by law officials. In other states, there are time limits, like 20 or 25 years.

“This intersection between CHRIA and the Right to Know Law doesn’t stop the release of the Morris records,” Burke said. “But it’s not just her case, we see this in cases all across the Commonwealth where investigative records are very difficult to obtain.”

Speaking about CHRIA in general, others had varying opinions on the Act.

Andrew Thomson, an attorney for Edelstein Law that represented PGN, expressed frustration with the way CHRIA has been used in this particular case. 

While he feels that CHRIA is useful if applied ethically for ongoing investigations, in cases like Morris’s, where no one is actually still investigating, there is no need for secrecy.

“Anyone who looks at this case, and looks at what’s happening in it, will be able to determine that the office of the District Attorney, despite its public pronouncement, choses to withhold documents that would no doubt shed a light on what happened to Nizah Morris. And they’re hiding behind CHRIA to do it,” Thomson said. “It’s a few interviews, and it’s like the Nixon tapes.”

This refusal to hand over the records, Thomson said, has allowed for a lack of accountability.

“I’m sure the murderer wants to thank Mr. Krasner for keeping these documents that might shed light on that murderer being identified,” Thomson said. “I want to congratulate him on continuing to do that.”

CHRIA’s overapplication is not unique to this case either, said Melissa Melewsky, Media Law Counsel with the Pennsylvania NewsMedia Association. Co-writing the amicus brief with Burke, she echoed that CHRIA has made it difficult for media professionals and others to obtain useful information.

While she acknowledged that it’s important to protect information in investigations, she feels that at some point, information cannot be withheld indefinitely. Only truly investigative and timely information should be held under CHRIA.

“From a media lawyer’s perspective, CHRIA is a problematic law all the time regarding government transparency, and I think it deserves a really hard look from state legislators,” Melewsky said. “It does create a significant barrier to access on a regular basis — and not just in the Nizah Morris case.”

Tim Cwiek, who has been covering the case for the Philadelphia Gay News for the 19 years since Morris’s death, demonstrated that feeling of how difficult of a process it has been to gain access for members of the media — especially with the possible bias against Morris as a trans person of color. 

“The ruling sadly reinforced my belief that there’s very little justice to be had in the judicial system,” Cwiek wrote in an email. “Particularly for marginalized people of color and those who aren’t wealthy or well-connected.”

Despite the continued setbacks with the case, those involved have been passionately fighting for justice and still hope for some sort of resolution — both for reform of the laws and for the Morris case specifically.

“Anytime there’s a relationship of trust, there has to be good communication between both sides, and in this case, I think there hasn’t been,” Melewsky said of the relationship between law enforcement and the public. “I think there is certainly room under both the Right to Know law and CHRIA for law enforcement officials to be more forthcoming. Whether or not they chose to exercise that discretion is a different question and one that I can’t answer.”

As for the Morris case specifically, Burke said that she hopes the case gets some sort of resolution, and that it serves as a future lesson.

“As a lawyer and as a human being, this case is troubling,” Burke said. “I hope in the end at some point there is justice for her and her family, but I think this is a really important example showing why scrutiny of law enforcement records by the public and the press is so important.”

Sanchez, who knew Morris in her childhood, is also hoping that some answers will be brought to light at some point. 

While the case still triggers bad memories, it reminds her why she does the work she does. As someone who experienced violence as a trans woman in Philadelphia herself and was not taken seriously by the police, she recognizes the need for immediate change.

“There is a long way to go for the Philadelphia police department — and any police department across the US — to really bridge that gap between community and law enforcement,” she said. “Community members don’t trust it, especially when we’re intersecting with impact issues and identity.”

While she still feels Morris’s case is not over yet, she said in the meantime that it’s important for trans people and allies alike to rally together to protect each other from harm.

“Trans lives matter, and we need folks to protect our bodies. Put your life on the line for us, because we’re losing our lives trying to fight for our lives,” Sanchez said, speaking specifically to allies before directing a call to action to trans Philadelphians. “The trans Philadelphian community needs to stick together, they need to unify, pick up our shit so we can fight this overall issue together.”

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