Windy City Media Group Frontpage News

THE VOICE OF CHICAGO'S GAY, LESBIAN, BI, TRANS AND QUEER COMMUNITY SINCE 1985

home search facebook twitter join
Gay News Sponsor Windy City Times 2021-06-09
DOWNLOAD ISSUE
Donate

Sponsor
Sponsor
Sponsor

  WINDY CITY TIMES

LGBTQ HISTORY MONTH: Nizah Morris case a seventeen-year saga for transparency
by Timothy Cwiek, timothy@epgn.com
2020-10-01

This article shared 2245 times since Thu Oct 1, 2020
facebook twitter pin it google +1 reddit email


This month marks the 65th birthday of Nizah Morris. It's difficult to believe that Nizah would be a senior citizen if she were alive today. She was born on Oct. 19, 1955. So much has changed since her tragic death in 2002 — possibly connected to an encounter with Philadelphia police. This year, 2020, marks my 17th year — and counting — reporting on her case. Today, widespread police-reform efforts are underway. But when Nizah was alive, many police officers believed they could brutalize the LGBT community with impunity.

At the time of her death, Nizah was a 47-year-old trans woman of color and a beloved figure in the Philadelphia community. She was a popular entertainer and advocated for transgender rights.

On Dec. 22, 2002, she attended a private party at the old Key West Bar, near 13th and Walnut streets. From all accounts, she had too much to drink at the party. Nizah was stumbling and falling outside Key West. At 3:07 a.m, a person identified only as "Anisa" placed a 911 call on Nizah's behalf, seeking an ambulance because Nizah couldn't stand without assistance. Officers Kenneth Novak and Elizabeth Skala were dispatched to investigate Nizah at 3:10 a.m. Paramedics were also summoned. Skala arrived first, canceled the paramedics, and told the dispatcher she would "drop off" Nizah at 15th and Walnut. Skala said this at 3:13 a.m., according to 911 tapes. ( Skala later told investigators she thought Nizah lived at 15th and Walnut. But Nizah lived three miles away in West Philadelphia. ) Novak's movements during the "courtesy ride" for Nizah remain unclear.

Twelve minutes later, at 3:25 a.m., a passing motorist called 911, reporting that someone was lying unconscious in the street at 16th and Walnut, bleeding from the head.

Once again, paramedics were summoned. But when they arrived at 16th and Walnut, they acted strangely — speaking at length with Officer Thomas Berry rather than tending to Nizah, according to an eyewitness. A few minutes earlier, Berry had offered to help Nizah out of Skala's car, but his help wasn't needed, Berry later told investigators.

Nizah had a subdural hematoma and needed prompt medical attention if she were to survive. But when paramedics finally placed Nizah onto a gurney for transport to Jefferson Hospital, Berry put Nizah's jacket over her face, as if she were already dead, according to an eyewitness.

Nizah died 64 hours later at Jefferson Hospital. She was alone. The police didn't try to identify her and summon her family. On Dec. 25, 2002, the Medical Examiner's Office declared Nizah's death to be a "homicide" due to "blunt-force head trauma." Several days later, when relatives were informed about Nizah's "courtesy ride," they became deeply concerned that police were linked to her death.

Police officials initially refused to accept that Nizah was a homicide victim. They retained a neuropathologist, Lucy Rorke, to review the medical examiner's findings. Rorke reaffirmed that Nizah was a homicide victim. But a police spokesperson insisted that any suggestion that police were responsible for Nizah's death would be "preposterous."

My reporting of the case intensified in January 2003, when Nizah's mother Roslyn contacted me and expressed concern that police killed her daughter. Roslyn simply couldn't believe the story she was getting from police. I'll never forget Roslyn's question to me: "Since when are the police a taxi service?" As for Skala thinking Nizah lived at 15th and Walnut, Roslyn said: "Nobody lives at 15th and Walnut."

Thus began a lengthy effort to answer the question: "Who killed Nizah Morris?" The first thing I did after Roslyn's phone call was to request police reports for the pre-injury and post-injury incidents involving Nizah. I paid $30 expecting to receive two reports. Instead, I got a letter from police claiming no police report was written for either incident. This inaccurate information was sent to me via the U.S. Postal Service. I asked the police department's LGBT liaison officer to look into the matter, but he was of no assistance.

After I wrote a PGN story about the police's assertion that no report had been written about Nizah, her sister Andrea contacted me and said she saw a police report among the possessions of a homicide detective who visited Roslyn's home.

I conveyed this information to PGN's then-editor, Patti Tihey, who wrote an editorial calling for an FBI investigation of Nizah's death.

Perhaps as a preemptive measure, then-District Attorney Lynne Abraham telephoned me after the editorial appeared and said her office would investigate the case. That happened in April 2003.

Abraham also told me that police did write an incident report about Nizah. She said I could pick up a copy at the 9th Police District in the Fairmount section.

Berry wrote the police report but wasn't available to answer questions about it. I was dumbfounded when I saw that Berry speculated about Nizah's LGBT status in his report. He wrote that Nizah appeared to be a "transsexual." Police officers aren't supposed to speculate about the LGBT status of a simple "hospital case" — which is what Berry deemed Nizah to be. Berry's report was mystifying and increased my curiosity about the police response to Nizah.

In December 2003, Abraham announced that the DA's Morris investigation reached an impasse with no criminal suspects identified — thus clearing the way for public hearings before the Police Advisory Commission ( PAC ) for possible violations of police department regulations. Due to protracted resistance from the police department, the hearings didn't take place until December 2006.

The main thing I remember about the PAC's 2006 hearings was Skala's complete inability to distance herself from Nizah's head injury. I will never forget this exchange between PAC Commissioner Adam Rodgers and Skala:

Rodgers: For the record, your best estimate is she's with you for 16 minutes and you dropped her off?

Skala: Yes.

Skala's 16-minute estimate placed her squarely with Nizah at the time of her head injury. Please remember: At 3:10 a.m. Skala and Novak were dispatched to investigate Nizah near 13th and Walnut. At 3:25 a.m. the first post-injury 911 call for Nizah was placed at 16th and Walnut. That's 15 minutes after Skala and Novak were initially dispatched. If Skala was with Nizah for 16 minutes, she had to be present when Nizah sustained her head injury. Just do the math.

Also during the hearings, I was struck that Novak wasn't called to testify. Nizah's relatives implored PAC staff and commissioners to require Novak to testify. But for some reason never explained to the public, Novak wasn't required to testify at the PAC hearings.

Computer-aided dispatch records released during the PAC hearings indicated that several Morris 911 transmissions had never been released to the public. That prompted me to file an open-records request with the police for a complete set of 911 transmissions relating to the Morris incident. The litigation ended when the police department acknowledged its entire Morris homicide file was missing. Mind you, the Morris case was receiving a fair amount of media attention at the time. Yet the police still managed to lose their entire Morris homicide file.

At PGN's insistence, the city Law Department agreed to contact various city agencies in an effort to reconstruct the Morris homicide file. I was given a copy of the reconstructed file. Several city agencies contributed records to it, including the DA's Office and the PAC. If additional Morris documents were located, they were supposed to be placed in the reconstructed file — which I would be permitted to access upon request. This agreement was memorialized in a stipulated order signed by Common Pleas Judge Jane Cutler Greenspan in May 2008.

In January 2011, I was pleased when a new group of PAC commissioners agreed to reopen the Morris probe. ( The previous PAC cleared police of any responsibility for Nizah's death. ) The new PAC commissioners subpoenaed all Morris records at the DA's office. In response, a contingent of commissioners was permitted to visit the DA's Office and photocopy Morris records never revealed to the public. But due to a nondisclosure agreement, PAC commissioners couldn't share the DA's records with the public. Moreover, the records weren't deposited in the reconstructed Morris homicide file, which in my opinion was a violation of Judge Greenspan's order.

Still, the PAC's second investigation was helpful because it unearthed an unredacted version of Berry's report. The unredacted version shows that Berry made emendations to his report after visiting Nizah at Jefferson Hospital around 6 a.m. Dec. 22, 2002. Novak and Skala also were there. I don't know why all three officers visited Nizah at Jefferson Hospital. But I do know their patrol logs and Berry's police report document Nizah solely in the context of being a "hospital case." My concern is that all three officers waited to complete their paperwork until they visited Jefferson Hospital and could write about Nizah in that context.

In doing so, the officers avoided documenting the courtesy ride and Nizah's fatal head wound. Such details wouldn't be necessary for a simple "hospital case" that was transported to a hospital by paramedics, not by police.

I've tried on numerous occasions to obtain clarity about the officers' paperwork, to no avail. In my opinion, it's outrageous that police don't feel the need to publicly explain these official documents. Perhaps with the national movement for systemic police reform currently underway, an explanation will be forthcoming.

In 2013, the PAC issued a supplemental Morris opinion, calling for state and federal probes of the Morris case. So far, neither the U.S. Attorney's Office nor the Pennsylvania Attorney General's Office has agreed to investigate the matter. Attorney General Josh Shapiro has stated publicly that he would review the case if the legislature gives him the power to do so. As of presstime, no such legislation has been introduced.

In 2014, I was honored by the Society of Professional Journalists with a Sigma Delta Chi Investigative Reporting Award for my coverage of the Morris case. I will always remember the trip to D.C. to receive the award, accompanied by PGN Publisher Mark Segal and then-Editor Jen Colletta. It was the first time an LGBT media outlet had been honored with a Sigma Delta Chi award. The recognition was deeply appreciated and helped shine a spotlight on the case. I hope that Nizah was looking down, smiling.

The struggle for transparency in Nizah's death continues to this day. The Edelstein Law Firm recently was retained by PGN to help enforce the stipulated order signed by Judge Greenspan in 2008. It is hoped that city officials will cooperate with the order and deposit all of the city's Morris records in a reconstructed homicide file — without the need for additional litigation.

Julie Chovanes, a civil-rights attorney and transgender advocate, is also trying to bring transparency to the Morris case. Thanks to Chovanes, the police department released its Morris Internal Affair Bureau file in July 2018 — a huge achievement which the city resisted for many years. Chovanes is currently seeking all Morris records at the DA's Office. Her open-records request remains pending in Commonwealth Court.

The Morris saga is far from over. Many questions remain: Why couldn't Skala distance herself from Nizah's head injury at the PAC hearings? Why didn't Novak testify at the PAC hearings? Why did Berry place a jacket over Nizah's face as she was clinging to life? Why did all three officers visit Nizah at Jefferson Hospital? Are local authorities pursuing justice or perpetrating a cover-up?

Releasing the city's Morris records could potentially answer many of these lingering questions. Judge Greenspan didn't see any danger with transparency in 2008. I don't see any danger with transparency in 2020. Information is power. As I told DA Larry Krasner not long ago, transparency in the Morris case would be akin to applying Mercurochrome to a festering wound. Then, the healing process can begin.


This article shared 2245 times since Thu Oct 1, 2020
facebook twitter pin it google +1 reddit email





Windy City Media Group does not approve or necessarily agree with the views posted below.
Please do not post letters to the editor here. Please also be civil in your dialogue.
If you need to be mean, just know that the longer you stay on this page, the more you help us.


  ARTICLES YOU MIGHT LIKE

Gay News

Chicago History Museum to mark Juneteenth with event, free admission
2021-06-14
The Chicago History Museum will celebrate Juneteenth with free museum admission for all and a virtual event, "Resounding Liberty: Remembering Juneteenth." The virtual celebration includes a civic talk on the history and national impact of Juneteenth; ...


Gay News

NATIONAL Panic defense, VP Kamala Harris, Black LGBTQ app, crime items
2021-06-13
Four states and the nation's capital have taken action to ban the so-called LGBTQ "panic defense," which is a legal strategy used by defendants to cite a victim's sexual orientation or gender identity as an excuse ...


Gay News

WORLD India court, trans death, Guatemalan LGBTQs, Gay Games
2021-06-13
A court in India ordered state and federal officials to draw up plans for sweeping reforms to respect LGBTQ rights, in a ruling that went far beyond the terms of a case brought by a lesbian couple who said they had ...


Gay News

Congress makes Pulse Nightclub a national memorial
2021-06-12
The U.S. Senate unanimously passed legislation designating the site of the Pulse Nightclub a national memorial, NBC News reported. The House passed its version of the bill May 12. The measure now goes to President Joe ...


Gay News

When crime goes viral
2021-06-10
Activists say Illinois's law that makes it illegal to expose others to HIV is racist and homophobic. Now they're close to changing it.
In early 2016, Jimmy Amutavi had what he considered a happy life. More ...


Gay News

WORLD: Domestic violence, activist dies, Jerusalem Pride, Olympics
2021-06-06
On May 28, the LGBTQ Domestic Violence Foundation launched its #SeenAndBelieved campaign to shine a light on the prevalence of DFV (domestic and family violence) in LGBTQ communities, aiming to break down the barriers to victims ...


Gay News

First gay Black man elected to office in Texas
2021-06-06
On June 5, Jalen McKee-Rodriguez was elected to represent District 2 for the San Antonio City Council—making him the first openly gay Black man elected to any office in Texas history, KEN5.com reported. McKee-Rodriguez, 26, defeated ...


Gay News

National AIDS Memorial brings leaders of AIDS movement together to mark 40 years
2021-06-05
--From a press release - San Francisco (Saturday, June 5, 2021) — Leaders of the AIDS movement came together in the National AIDS Memorial — the nation's federally-designated memorial to AIDS — to mark forty years since the first cases of ...


Gay News

Harold J. Phillips appointed director of the White House Office of National AIDS Policy
2021-06-05
--From a press release - Statement from Jeffrey S. Crowley, distinguished scholar and director of the Infectious Disease Initiatives at the O'Neill Institute for National and Global Health Law at Georgetown University Law Center: I applaud President Biden's appointment of ...


Gay News

Trans-affirming election legislation passed by Illinois General Assembly, Equality Illinois responds
2021-06-04
--From a press release - Statement from Brian C. Johnson, CEO of Equality Illinois, on passage of Senate Bill 825, the trans-affirming election omnibus legislation passed by the Illinois General Assembly on Monday, May 31, 2021: "During Pride Month and at ...


Gay News

Mayor Lori Lightfoot to kick off "A Legacy of Pride" June 7
2021-06-04
--From a press release - The Legacy Project and Rep. Lamont Robinson will present "A Legacy of Pride" at Chicago's Legacy Walk Outdoor LGBTQ+ History Museum/Jane Addams Memorial, 3600 N. Halsted St. on June 7 at 10:30 a.m. Mayor Lori Lightfoot ...


Gay News

Incarceration for HIV crimes in Georgia cost the state $9 million
2021-06-02
--From a press release - Between 1999-2020, as many as 133 people were incarcerated in Georgia prisons for HIV-related crimes New analysis from the Williams Institute at UCLA School of Law finds that as many as 133 people have been incarcerated ...


Gay News

Wisconsin Governor blocks use of federal money for conversion therapy for minors
2021-06-01
--From a press release - MADISON, WI — Today, Wisconsin Governor Tony Evers signed an Executive Order directing the Department of Health Services (DHS), the Department of Children and Families (DCF), and the Department of ...


Gay News

GLAAD at Pride: Protect the most vulnerable among us
2021-06-01
--From a press release - New York, NY - Tuesday, June 1, 2021 - GLAAD, the world's largest lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) media advocacy organization, today released a statement to honor the start of Pride Month, highlighting the ...


Gay News

Wisconsin LGBTQ History fundraiser honors 60th anniversary of LGBTQ uprising
2021-06-01
--From a press release - Milwaukee, WI - As Pride Month kicks off today across America, the Wisconsin LGBTQ History Project is launching a campaign to celebrate the birthplace of "pride" in Wisconsin, recognize a turning point in local LGBTQ history, ...


 



Copyright © 2021 Windy City Media Group. All rights reserved.
Reprint by permission only. PDFs for back issues are downloadable from
our online archives. Single copies of back issues in print form are
available for $4 per issue, older than one month for $6 if available,
by check to the mailing address listed below.

Return postage must accompany all manuscripts, drawings, and
photographs submitted if they are to be returned, and no
responsibility may be assumed for unsolicited materials.
All rights to letters, art and photos sent to Nightspots
(Chicago GLBT Nightlife News) and Windy City Times (a Chicago
Gay and Lesbian News and Feature Publication) will be treated
as unconditionally assigned for publication purposes and as such,
subject to editing and comment. The opinions expressed by the
columnists, cartoonists, letter writers, and commentators are
their own and do not necessarily reflect the position of Nightspots
(Chicago GLBT Nightlife News) and Windy City Times (a Chicago Gay,
Lesbian, Bisexual and Transegender News and Feature Publication).

The appearance of a name, image or photo of a person or group in
Nightspots (Chicago GLBT Nightlife News) and Windy City Times
(a Chicago Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender News and Feature
Publication) does not indicate the sexual orientation of such
individuals or groups. While we encourage readers to support the
advertisers who make this newspaper possible, Nightspots (Chicago
GLBT Nightlife News) and Windy City Times (a Chicago Gay, Lesbian
News and Feature Publication) cannot accept responsibility for
any advertising claims or promotions.

 

 

 

TRENDINGBREAKINGPHOTOS







Sponsor
Sponsor


 



Donate


About WCMG      Contact Us      Online Front  Page      Windy City  Times      Nightspots      OUT! Guide     
Identity      BLACKlines      En La Vida      Archives      Advanced Search     
Windy City Queercast      Queercast Archives     
Press  Releases      Join WCMG  Email List      Email Blast      Blogs     
Upcoming Events      Todays Events      Ongoing Events      Bar Guide      Community Groups      In Memoriam      Outguide Categories      Outguide Advertisers      Search Outguide      Travel      Dining Out      Privacy Policy     

Windy City Media Group publishes Windy City Times,
The Bi-Weekly Voice of the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Trans Community.
5315 N. Clark St. #192, Chicago, IL 60640-2113 • PH (773) 871-7610 • FAX (773) 871-7609.