Ten years after the death of Nizah Morris, her family’s sense of outrage remains unabated.
“The outrage is just the same,” said Roslyn Wilkins, her mother. “Here we are, 10 years later, a grieving family [that’s] still bewildered by the crazy story we’re getting [from officials].”
The latest twist in the seemingly unending saga is a recent claim by the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office that it doesn’t have any 911 recordings in its Morris investigative file.
The Morris family has compact discs containing more than 100 911 transmissions related to Morris’ homicide.
The family said it now hopes a criminal-justice agency that’s serious about the case will have a listen.
Morris was a 47-year-old transgender woman found lying in the street with a fatal head wound shortly after she received a courtesy ride from Philadelphia police.
The incident took place during the pre-dawn hours of Dec. 22, 2002.
She died two days later from complications of a fractured skull, and the case has never been solved.
Police say they thought Morris lived at 15th and Walnut, and agreed to transport her there from the old Key West bar near 13th and Walnut — where Morris had been staggering out front, very intoxicated.
“I’m still waiting to hear where exactly they thought Nizah lived,” Wilkins mused. “Nizah lived in West Philadelphia. Nobody lives at 15th and Walnut. We’re not buying any of it.”
Police say they have no clue as to the identity of Morris’ killer or killers.
But family members contend the police need look no further than within their own ranks for the culprits.
The family has long believed that police used excessive force when handling Morris, then dropped her off at 16th and Walnut, instead of transporting her immediately to a hospital.
“An animal would have been treated better,” said Morris’ sister, Andrea Brunson. “We’re not saying the police set out to hurt Nizah. But something went terribly wrong.”
Morris sustained a life-threatening subdural hematoma and needed emergency medical treatment if there was to be any chance of survival, Brunson said.
Instead, she was left at the scene for about 40 minutes before finally being transported to Jefferson University Hospital at 4:13 a.m. Dec. 22, 2002.
“[Police] closed her small window of opportunity to survive,” Brunson added. “In my opinion, that’s murder.”
Brunson’s formed that opinion after she heard the unsettling testimony at public hearings held by the Police Advisory Commission in 2006.
Officer Elizabeth Skala, who initiated the ride, testified that to the best of her estimation, Morris was in her presence for 16 minutes, between 3:10 a.m.-3:26 a.m.
Skala gave this startling testimony despite being reminded that a 911 call about Morris’ head injury came in at 3:27 a.m.
Another shattering moment for the family was hearing a witness testify that Officer Thomas Berry placed a jacket over Morris’ face at 16th and Walnut as she was clinging to life.
That testimony reinforced the family’s conviction that police know more about the incident than they have acknowledged.
Kenneth Novak, another officer who was dispatched to investigate Morris outside Key West, has never publicly accounted for his actions during the critical time when Morris was injured — between 3:13-3:25 a.m.
But Novak told a PAC investigator he tried to reach Morris from 3:10 a.m. until Skala put herself back into service for a new assignment — without specifying the time Skala did that.
Skala told the PAC that she didn’t put herself back into service until 3:26 a.m.
If Novak was searching for Morris from 3:10-3:26 a.m., there’s no documentation of that activity in his patrol log.
Despite their continued outrage, relatives of Morris try to focus on the good times they shared with her.
“We only had Nizah for 47 years, but those years were precious,” Wilkins said.
She described Morris as a vivacious, gentle soul who befriended people from all walks of life.
Morris handled the attention her transgender status attracted with grace and dignity, family members said.
“People just gravitated to Nizah,” Brunson said. “Even straight men were in awe of her.”
Wilkins said never a day goes by that she doesn’t think of her child.
She set up a memorial to Morris in her dining room, where Morris’ ashes also repose.
“I haven’t cooked a family dinner since Nizah passed away,” Wilkins continued. “Our Christmas holidays have never been the same.”
Right around the time that Morris died — at 8:30 p.m. Dec. 24 — Wilkins said she felt extremely weak, and soon took to her bed.
“I was completely washed out,” she said. “I couldn’t imagine what was wrong.”
She said she now realizes that it was the invisible bond between mother and child tugging at her.
The family filed a federal wrongful-death civil suit against the city in 2004, which was eventually settled out of court for $250,000.
“I was ill-advised,” Wilkins said. “I wanted to push forward with the lawsuit. I got very bad legal advice. The lawyers got the bulk of the [settlement money]. But money is nothing compared to the loss of Nizah.”
She said the settlement shouldn’t indicate that the family accepts the official police story.
“We’re not satisfied with any of it,” she said.
Lt. John Stanford, a Philadelphia police spokesperson, had no comment for this story.
A tentative interview with Homicide Capt. James Clark was postponed indefinitely until he becomes more knowledgeable about the case, Stanford said.
Meanwhile, Morris’ mother and sister expressed appreciation for the ongoing investigation by the city’s PAC.
They said they look forward to receiving a copy of the PAC’s final report on the case, which is expected in the coming months.
But the PAC is an administrative body, and the family is hoping for a serious criminal investigation.
“We’d like to know who killed Nizah Morris,” Brunson said.
The women also expressed full support for a federal investigation, if it gets to that point.
“Bring in the feds,” Wilkins said.
They’re particularly concerned that police and the D.A.’s Office have indicated to the PAC that they don’t have any 911 recordings related to the Morris case.
Brunson said she occasionally prays that D.A. Seth Williams will be more forthcoming about the ongoing investigation.
Family members also questioned why the D.A. refuses to account for a police log related to the case, which could help explain why Morris wasn’t transported to a hospital immediately after her head wound.
They view the D.A.’s lack of candor about the log as more stonewalling.
“And whatever happened to the video-surveillance tapes along Walnut Street that [investigators] got back in 2003?” Brunson posed.
Tasha Jamerson, a spokesperson for Williams, had no comment for this story.
The Morris family includes dozens of young people, and Wilkins said they’re all committed to pursuing justice for Morris.
“This case will never go away,” she said with a sigh.
From our media partners at PGN-The Philadelphia Gay News.