Cops Covered Up Trans Woman’s Mysterious Death
Police were supposed to take Nizah Morris to the hospital, but minutes later she was found bleeding in the street. Then the deception began.
PHILADELPHIA — Something violent happened to Nizah Morris between the time police picked her up and when she was found bleeding and unconscious in the street.
Dispatch records show that Officer Elizabeth Skala responded to a 911 call from a bar in Philadelphia’s “Gayborhood” section of Center City on Dec. 22, 2002. There she encountered Morris, a transgender woman who had been living as female since the 1970s. Morris was well-known and well liked in the area, where she performed in drag shows at a local bar. Morris was also well-known to the police, having been arrested 53 times over her lifetime, according the local press reports.
A 911 caller reported a collapsed person in need of an ambulance, which was en route—until Skala canceled it, the police department admitted. Skala and witnesses said Morris refused to go to the hospital.
Then several bystanders helped falling-down-drunk Morris into Skala’s patrol car.
Skala later told police investigators that Morris asked her to go to 15th and Walnut streets, about four blocks away from the bar and several miles from Morris’s home in West Philly. Morris got out of the car of her own strength, Skala said, upright and refusing further assistance.
Within minutes, a passing motorist almost ran over Morris, who was lying in the street, comatose and bleeding from a severe injury to her head. EMS took her to Thomas Jefferson Hospital, where she died on Christmas Eve, having never regained consciousness.
Following Morris’s death, police and prosecutors hid critical information about what happened. Cops misreported Morris’s ride with Skala in official logs; the homicide squad did not accept the medical examiner’s determination that she had been killed; and the police department “lost” her homicide report for eight years. Meanwhile, the district attorney’s office refused to give police files to the civilian oversight board reviewing Morris’s case. When the DA finally turned over the files, it forced the board to sign a nondisclosure agreement that would keep what they found hidden forever.
Nizah Morris was a kind of matron to younger transgender women in the community, Morris’s friend Deja Alvarez told The Daily Beast. Alvarez says Morris used her 30 years of experience as an “out” trans woman to nurture and empower the younger generation around her.
“A lot of the younger girls in the trans community, Nizah was always so sweet to them,” Alvarez said.
Police were not sweet to Morris, though—her family was only notified of the tragedy after she died, with cops still referring to her as a man. “He’s dead,” a detective told Morris’s mother. He was later removed from the case for complaints of insensitivity. Morris had also been classified as a “John Doe” while she died, though she should have been known to one of the officers on scene because she had previously been arrested for prostitution.
Officer Skala didn’t report giving Morris a ride to 15th and Walnut in her official log. Roslyn Wilkins, Morris’s mother, said she did not even know her daughter was with police until people from the Key West Bar told her about it.
The bar patrons also said Morris was far too drunk to have left Skala’s car on her own, which is supported by a hospital toxicology report that found her blood alcohol level to be more than three times the legal limit for intoxication.
Alvarez told The Daily Beast that Morris had been taking shots and was “more drunk than usual.” Morris was so drunk, Alvarez says, she brought her a plate of food and attempted to convince her to eat before allowing her to drink more. Morris refused and continued to drink hard liquor, Alvarez said.
Officer Thomas Berry claimed he happened on the scene on the 1400 block of Walnut Street as Skala was letting Morris out of her patrol car. Minutes later, Berry responded to the 911 call of Morris injured on the street, and took charge of the scene upon arrival at 16th and Walnut.
Berry reportedly did not interview the man who almost ran over Morris and who had called 911 first. Berry “placed a jacket over Morris’s face, as if she were dead,” and told dispatch that the incident was a “DK,” police code for a drunk person.
It took more than 30 minutes for EMS to take Morris to the hospital, critical time lost for someone rendered unconscious from head trauma. A witness later said he was “struck by the lack of urgency” from cops and paramedics.
Hospital records show that the hospital staff contacted police after Morris was dropped off by EMS because they believed Morris was an assault victim, and not someone who had been in an accident. Hospital staff also requested Morris’s name from police dispatch, which suggests that she was dropped off unidentified. 911 transmissions indicate the officers manipulated events to keep the dispatcher from connecting the ride from Skala to the hospital call 12 minutes later, even feigning confusion over Morris’s gender.
In Thomas Jefferson Hospital where Morris was being hooked up to life support, Officers Berry and Skala met with Officer Kenneth Novak, who was assigned to investigate and had called the two cops to the hospital.
There the officers appear to have agreed upon a story to hide Skala’s ride that immediately preceded Morris’s injury. The officers indicated in their logs that no 911 target was at the Key West Bar where the initial 911 call was placed, but that Skala and Berry spotted a drunk person near Broad and Walnut. The logs also indicate that minutes later, Berry responded to the same drunk person at 16th and Walnut, where Morris was found unconscious. Detectives working the case said they were not informed of Morris’s ride in Skala’s police car until several days after Morris died on Dec. 24, 2002—when the case began to be treated as a possible homicide.
The police department’s homicide unit did not initially accept Assistant Medical Examiner Edwin Lieberman’s finding that Morris’s death was a homicide. Staff at the medical examiner's office told Morris’s family that she appeared to have sustained defensive wounds on her hands and wrists. Nevertheless, the homicide unit requested consultation from a brain-injury expert, who agreed with the medical examiner’s homicide finding.
In May 2003, Wilkins filed a complaint with the Police Advisory Commission for “lack of information provided to the family by the Police Department” in the wake of her daughter’s death. (The commission is Philadelphia’s independent oversight authority of the police.) It had already voted a month earlier, “as an issue of community concern,” to investigate Morris’s death. Still, it did not hold hearings on Wilkins’s complaint until December of 2006.
While the commission slowly investigated, Wilkins filed a wrongful death suit against the city and the Key West Bar and settled it for $250,000. Among other allegations, the lawsuit claimed Skala and other officers had deprived Morris of adequate and timely service because she was transgender, violating her constitutional right to equal protection under the law.
The suit also claimed that Morris could not have consented to the ride with Skala, which the officer was not authorized to provide, and that Skala should never have canceled the ambulance. Skala had denied Morris her Fourth Amendment protection from unreasonable seizure by effectively kidnapping her in the police car, Wilkins alleged.
Skala received a verbal reprimand for failure to follow procedure regarding intoxicated persons and hospital calls. No other officer was disciplined for the incident.
Days after the Police Advisory Commission completed its investigation in November 2007, it was told by the police department that the opinion it had issued, which found officers had acted properly (with the exception of Skala), was based on incomplete files. During testimony in a 2007 lawsuit, a detective was forced to admit on the witness stand that the entire homicide report had been lost since 2003. The report was not “found” again until 2011, in the City Hall archives.
The commission voted to reopen the investigation in March 2008, subpoenaed records, and then fought with District Attorney Lynne Abraham until November for access to evidence.
Even when the DA finally turned over some evidence, she did so on the condition that the commissioners sign a non-disclosure agreement, leaving them unable to issue any report or take any action based on the 2008 investigation. When a new commission led by current PAC Executive Director Kelvyn Anderson voted to reopen the case in 2011, it refused to enter into a non-disclosure agreement with the new district attorney.
According to the commission, “the nondisclosure agreement the 2008 Police Advisory Commission entered into with the DA undermines our effectiveness and credibility as a civilian oversight board and compromises the openness and transparency that is our raison d’être.”
It found “the magnitude of the mismanagement of the Nizah Morris homicide [to be] staggering.” So much so that, even though not explicitly within its mandate, it forwarded its opinion along with a request for an investigation to U.S. Attorney Zane Memenger.
In his letter to Memenger on behalf of the commission, Anderson wrote that the matter was compromised by police when “the homicide record was ‘lost’ for eight years.” The investigation was also hampered by the DA’s office (who determined there had been no official wrongdoing by police), and even by the PAC looking into the case in 2003-2008.
“The homicide of Nizah Morris is a crime that remains unsolved,” wrote Anderson. “[T]he investigation is a litany of errors and has provided more questions than answers… and [the case] must be more appropriately and fully investigated by a criminal justice agency other than the Philadelphia Police Department.”
Specifically, “procedures with respect to hospital cases and intoxicated persons were not followed [nor] procedures regarding record keeping and the logging of information… [and] official police business may have been conducted on private cell phones and therefore ‘off‐the‐record.’… Discrepancies in records were not followed up… records are still missing… and the testimony is so inconsistent that we believe perjury might have been committed.”
And, the commision adds, “these are the problems that we know. What we do not know may be more problematic.” The PAC never received some documents it requested, such as information in the lawsuit brought by Morris’s mother. “The missing evidence is of great concern to the commission and should be to the citizens of Philadelphia.”
Anderson says the U.S. Attorney did not reply to the request to review the Philly police investigation, either. The Pennsylvania attorney general’s office also punted, saying the case was not in their jurisdiction.
Tim Cwiek, a Philadelphia Gay News reporter whose coverage of the Morris homicide won the Sigma Delta Chi Award for the paper, is still contending with Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams in court for records on the case.
“It’s a lot of game-playing, and it’s 12 years of it. Once [then-District Attorney Lynne Abraham] announced there had been no criminal wrongdoing by police, that was it, they hunkered down, and they didn’t want anyone looking over their shoulders,” Cwiek told The Daily Beast.
Elizabeth Skala-DiDonato is still a Philadelphia police officer despite the commission’s finding that she had “blatantly and methodically” lied about her interactions with Morris the night she died. She was transferred from street duty not long after Morris was killed, and reportedly works in the commissioner’s office.
Asked if he would support an outside review of the evidence, District Attorney Seth Williams’s spokesperson Cameron Kline tells The Daily Beast, “as we have said with other requests for third-party investigations, the district attorney feels that it is his responsibility to continue to be the sole investigating office in criminal cases.”
Anderson said the commission has gone as far as it can but still hopes that its report will compel another agency to act.
The commission wrote in its opinion that it went outside of its mandate and sought external review because “It is well within the rights of an informed citizenry to seek redress from alternate criminal justice agencies if the need arises.”
It quoted Reverend James Smith, minister at the First Presbyterian Church in Springfield, Illinois, who was a friend of President Abraham Lincoln: “To sin by silence when they should protest makes cowards of men.”
Roselyn Wilkins died two years ago, still believing one day a lead would “crack the case wide open” and solve the mystery of her daughter’s death.
She is still waiting.
Correction, 10/30/15, 1:56PM: A previous version of this article said that the police department never responded to the second PAC report. Commissioner Ramsey agreed to policy changes regarding "courtesy rides" based on the reports recommendations, but his reponse addressed no other issues.