252 articles, 14 writers, and 19 years of Nizah Morris

Illustration by Ash Cheshire

Two hundred fifty two. That’s the number of articles that PGN has done on the Nizah Morris case, a little more than one a month for the last 19 years. The majority of those articles were written by Tim Cwiek. In total, 14 different writers have contributed articles and editorials spanning roughly 125,000 words about the case. It’s the equivalent of a 250-page textbook.

Over the nearly two decades, there has been a dizzying amount of information released and discovered about the case — some of it redacted and altered — and there is still information being completely withheld by the District Attorney’s office. The case also remains under investigation. By keeping the case under investigation, law enforcement does not have to hand over records on it, and there is no time limit on how long such records can be withheld according to Pennsylvania’s Criminal History Record Information Act.

We’ve continued to write about the case from 2003 to today, through times of community engagement and times of community indifference. We continue to have District Attorneys — most recently Larry Krasner — say they want transparency in the case but then actively prohibit information from being released to the public. None of that has changed over the last 19 years.

In 2006, the Philadelphia Police Advisory Commission held a public meeting where community members were allowed to ask questions about the case. That meeting was attended by around 20 people, including PGN reporters. At the time, one reader of the PGN who was at the meeting expressed their shock and disdain that so few community members attended it:

“Also deplorable is the apparent lack interest by the city’s gay and lesbian population,” the reader said in a PGN op-ed after the public meeting. “I expected to come upon a large meeting room, filled with people eager to hear the truth. What I found was a small conference room with seating for 20… What I learned from the hearings, more striking than the ambiguity around Nizah’s death, was the sentiment Nizah’s mother best expressed that they just saw her as a dead transvestite and thought that no one would care. My fear is “they” includes more than just the police and city officials; I fear lesbians, gays and bisexuals see Nizah the same way.”

If Nizah had died this year, under mysterious circumstances that potentially involved police misconduct, such a public meeting would have been packed to the brim and there may have even been protests outside the doors. But because it was 19 years ago during a time of greater indifference, and because there is no video of the crime to be played on social media, it’s as if Nizah’s death exists in a bubble. It’s a bubble that PGN has continually attempted to break so that people see the truth: Nizah Morris died, and we still don’t know who was responsible.

We do know that her death was ruled a homicide. This wasn’t a tragic accident. The medical examiner said she was hit on the head with a blunt instrument. We also know that she was severely intoxicated the night of her death, and we know that police officer Elizabeth Skala gave her a courtesy ride right before she sustained the fatal head injury. Before the courtesy ride, that same police officer also canceled the hospital call, which would have forced paramedics to come to the scene, without having the training to do so. Two other officers, Kenneth Novak and Thomas Berry, were also involved at various points in the incident, and the accounts from all three regarding that evening are, at best, a mixture of haziness and contradiction.

The way Nizah was treated by police in 2002 was appalling and, sadly, characteristic for the time.

The police officers made no attempts to contact Morris’ family after visiting her in the hospital, even though a witness at the scene recognized Morris as a performer at Bob and Barbara’s and told them that information. Morris died alone in Jefferson Hospital 64 hours after medics transported her there. Regarding the failure to notify the family, Morris’ mother, Roslyn Wilkins, told PAC chairperson Robert Nix in 2007: “How callous can an officer get?”

The police officers also referred to Nizah in various ways in their incident reports and in the 2006 public hearings, including “Mr. Morris.” When the police called Nizah’s mother to inform her of the death, they told her “Your son is dead.”

As much as some might claim such behavior was a relic of a different time, it behooves one to remember that this wasn’t an honest mistake at a company picnic. This was the death of a human being and the grief of a family. There should be no excuses given for those officers’ lack of respect and humanity.

It’s true that times have changed in the years since Nizah’s death. There is more scrutiny on how law enforcement treats LGBTQ people. There is more LGBTQ competency training for police officers. There are community members who work with law enforcement to ensure that LGBTQ people feel comfortable reporting crimes. There is even a new LGBTQ+ Committee at the District Attorney’s office.

But none of these things have helped shed light on Nizah’s case and none of them helped to prevent it.

Before she passed away in 2012, Nizah’s mother lit a candle at 3:10 a.m. every December 22 and kept it lit until 8:00 p.m. on December 24. It commemorated the moment Nizah stepped into officer Elizabeth Skala’s patrol car to the time Nizah died at Jefferson Hospital.

The totality of the Nizah Morris case — from the way she was treated before and after her death, to the language police used, to the community indifference — all of it reflects the way that trans people were treated in 2002. Times have changed, yes. But that doesn’t make Nizah’s death and the subsequent investigation any less grievous, and it doesn’t change the fact that law enforcement is still preventing information from being released to the public. We will ask the question again: what is in the Nizah Morris records that District Attorney Krasner refuses to make public?

It is our hope that more members of the community — especially the members of the District Attorney’s newly formed LGBTQ+ Committee — pay attention and put pressure on local law enforcement to finally reveal all the information related to the case, and to finally give some closure to Nizah’s friends, family, and the community who has been impacted by her story.

Despite the challenges presented by law enforcement, PGN’s reporting on the Nizah Morris case will continue, thanks in large part due to our persevering writer Tim Cwiek, who has reported on the case since the beginning and written 216 articles over 19 years. Upon reflection of the twists and turns the case has taken, and where it will go from here, Cwiek said:

“Slowly but surely, I’m optimistic the story will come into better focus. It’s taken years. But if you look at something long enough, things start to fall into place.”