Philly police open Internal Affairs probe of Nizah Morris case

Nizah Morris

Twenty years after Nizah Morris was discovered with a fatal head injury shortly after being inside a police vehicle, Philadelphia police have announced a new Internal Affairs probe into the trans woman’s death.

Police spokesperson Sgt. Eric Gripp announced the new investigation via an email to PGN on Sept. 29. The probe appears to be in response to several questions recently posed by PGN to the police department.

PGN’s questions focused on concerns that officers who were involved in a “courtesy ride” for Morris in December 2002 conspired to cover up the ride and subsequent assault of Morris in their patrol logs and an official police report.

The officers involved in the Morris incident are Thomas Berry, Elizabeth DiDonato (nee Skala) and Kenneth Novak. A 2003 Internal Affairs probe of the officers didn’t result in any substantive penalties for them.

Morris reportedly was given a ride by DiDonato during the pre-dawn hours of Dec. 22, 2002, from the area of 13th and Walnut streets to the area of 15th and Walnut streets. DiDonato told investigators Morris was inebriated and she thought she was taking Morris home. 

However, Morris lived in West Philadelphia, more than three miles away from 15th and Walnut streets, where DiDonato said she transported her.

Other problematic aspects of the case include: DiDonato initially handling Morris as if she weren’t the subject of a 911 call; DiDonato and Novak remaining at a traffic stop near City Hall while Morris lay dying at 16th and Walnut streets; a redacted computer-aided dispatch record hiding the priority DiDonato conveyed to a dispatcher for the traffic stop; a lengthy delay before the officers filled in their patrol logs; missing 911 recordings; a redacted police report submitted by Berry; and an indecipherable word written by Novak to describe Morris in his patrol log.

Available evidence indicates all three officers waited to fill in their Morris-related patrol log entries until responding to Morris at Jefferson Hospital later that morning — where they could represent her solely as a “hospital case,” not a courtesy-ride recipient.

Berry assigned two genders to Morris in his official police report of the incident. Berry also referred to Morris in his report as “Jane Doe” and “John Doe.” Berry’s bi-gendering of Morris wasn’t known to the public until 2011, when an unredacted version of his police report was released.

Berry didn’t document the courtesy ride in his patrol log or in his official police report of the incident, though Berry acknowledged to investigators that he knew about the ride.

While Morris lay dying at 16th and Walnut streets, DiDonato and Novak remained at an unrelated traffic stop near City Hall. In 2003, police released a computer-aided dispatch record for the traffic stop. However, the priority level that DiDonato conveyed to a dispatcher regarding the traffic stop was redacted from the record.

Citing a new Internal Affairs probe, Sgt. Eric Gripp, the police spokesperson, declined to say whether police have any 911 recordings relating to the incident. PGN has numerous 911 recordings showing that Morris had difficulty standing or walking, prior to being helped into DiDonato’s vehicle. The recordings also show that Morris sustained her fatal head injury within 12 minutes of entering DiDonato’s vehicle.

Also troubling is eyewitness testimony that Berry placed a jacket over Morris’ face as she was clinging to life at 16th and Walnut streets. The eyewitness thought Morris was dead, due to her alleged mistreatment by Berry and medics. The eyewitness told investigators he was surprised to read in a newspaper a few days later that Morris lived for two more days, albeit on life support.

Moreover, PGN asked Gripp about an indecipherable word that Novak wrote in his patrol log to describe Morris. Citing the recently-opened Internal Affairs investigation, Gripp didn’t answer the question. 

Asa Khalif, a member of the District Attorney’s LGBTQ+ Liaison Committee and a friend of Morris, expressed mixed feelings about the new Internal Affairs probe. 

“I’m concerned the investigation won’t be credible and trustworthy,” Khalif told PGN. “But there’s no statute of limitations on murder. Anything we can do to get closer to the truth — I’m all for. I’ll push for justice for Nizah ‘til my dying breath.”

Khalif added that he’ll closely monitor the progress of the investigation and will request progress reports on a regular basis.

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