I was unrecognizable to myself
I saw my reflection in a window I didn’t know my own face
oh brother are you gonna leave me wastin’ away
on the streets of Philadelphia
~ Bruce Springsteen, “Philadelphia”
I kept hearing those lyrics over the last couple of days as I felt like I was walking the streets of Philadelphia with Nizah Morris. Just a short distance, really, from Juniper and Chancellor streets to 16th and Walnut streets, before she disappeared into a few lost minutes that nobody who knows anything about is talking about. And at the end of that short journey — half a mile, just to end up three miles from home — she was gone, and nobody seemed to know why. And after two days, I don’t know why myself. But I do know that her story illustrates one of the reasons why one aspect of the hate crimes bill is needed.
Given how local law enforcement handled Nizah’s death, I can only imagine that the possibility of federal involvement or intervention might have lifted the haze that seems to cover the details of this case: police logs that don’t match their own accounts, police reports that were never filed; Morris lying unidentified in the hospital for 64 hours, when at least one of the three police involved knew her from past arrests, and one witness identified her to one of the officers involved; a detective who informs Morris’ mother of her death with by saying “He’s dead”; a medical examiner rules Morris’ death a homicide, but the police department assesses it as accidental until the second opinion they sought confirms the M.E.’s findings; a recording of a 911 call (one of two) edited down to 6 minutes when transmissions between the police officers involved really went on for 49 minutes; still no transcript of the call released; and an investigation that leads precisely nowhere.
But don’t take it from me. Talk a walk with Nizah for yourself.
Nizah Morris (1955 – December 24, 2002) was a 47-year-old African American transgender woman and entertainer in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. On December 22, 2002 Morris suffered a severe head injury from which she did not recover. Morris died on December 24, 2002, at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital, when she was removed from life support. The Philadelphia Police Department’s handing of Morris’ death sparked protests in the LGBT community.
Nizah Morris began living as a woman in the in her early 20s. By December 2002 she had built a life for herself working her mother’s daycare center, performing in the weekly drag show at Bob and Barbara’s — a bar in Philadelphia’s Center City neighborhood — and practicing Buddhism.
Injury & Death
On December 22, Morris attended a party at the Key West Bar at the intersection of Juniper and Chancellor streets in Philadelphia. Morris left the bar at 2:00 a.m., and collapsed outside of the bar due to intoxication. Onlookers formed a group around Morris — who could not stand without assistance and had to be supported, according to witnesses — and waited for paramedics for approximately 20 minutes.
A 6th District police officer arrived, canceled the prior call for paramedics when Morris declined to go to a hospital, and offered her a courtesy ride to a hospital. Morris declined a ride the hospital and asked to be taken home. She was then helped into the police cruiser by witnesses at the scene.
Though Morris lived in the 5000 block of Walnut Street, police officers reported that she asked to be let out at 15th and Walnut streets, left the patrol car, and began walking toward 16th Street.
Minutes later, a passing motorist discovered Morris lying on the sidewalk, bleeding from the right side of her forehead. A call was placed to 911, and a 9th District officer arrived at the scene, but did not call a supervisor or treat the event as a crime.
Morris was transported to Thomas Jefferson University Hospital in critical condition. On December 23, 2002, she was removed from life support, and at 8:30 p.m. on December 24, 2002, Nizah Morris was pronounced dead. 
Aftermath & Funeral
The medical examiner’s office classified Morris’ death as a homicide, on December 25, 2002, but however city’s homicide department refused to accept this ruling, classified Morris’ death as accidental, and requested a second opinion from a brain-injury specialist.
The following day, Morris’ mother — Roslyn Wilkins — was notified of her daughter’s death by a detective who informed her, “He’s dead.” The detective was removed from the case after Wilkins complained about his alleged insensitivity.
On December 27, 2002, family members viewed photographs of Morris’ body at the medical examiner’s office, and expressed concern upon noticing slight indentation marks on her wrists. Morris’ mother and sister said medical examiners showed them pictures indicating defensive wounds on her hands.
On December 31, 2002, the Philadelphia Inquirer published the first media account of Morris’ death, which referred to her as a “prostitute” in the headline and a “male prostitute” in the body of the story.
Nizah Morris was cremated on January 1, 2003, after a funeral service attended more than 300 people.
Questions & Controversy
In the days after Morris’ funeral, questions concerning her death arose among her family members and in the LGBT community. During a meeting on January 7, 2003 with Homicide Captain Charles Bloom, Wilkins learned that her daughter received a courtesy ride from police 20 minutes before she was discovered lying on the sidewalk with a head injury.
Details supplied by police about the moments prior to following Morris’ injury and discovery by a passing motorist conflicted with family members’ recollections of Morris,a and with witnesses’ accounts prior to Morris entering the police car outside of the Key West Bar.
Morris’ family doubted she would have accepted a ride from the police, given her fear of them, and questioned why she would ask to dropped off miles from where she lived.
Witnesses who were outside of the Key West Bar said Morris, was incapable of standing on her own,and had to be helped into the police car. They doubted that she would have been capable, just minutes later, of getting out of the police car on her own and walking away as police officers reported.
On January 30, 2003, more than a month after Morris’ death and the medical examiner’s assessment that it was a homicide,the homicide division of the police department officially declared Morris’ death a homicide. Tests performed by a brain-injury specialist, on samples taken during, resulted in a finding that her death was due to cerebral injury.
Police initially suggested Morris’ death had been accidental, and a police spokesman declined to comment on what led the medical examiner to conclude Morris’ death was a homicide.
Contradictions & More Questions
Contradictions between police accounts and witness accounts, and incomplete compliance with police procedures also aroused concerns that Morris case had been mishandled and the cause of her injury and subsequent death covered up because of her status as an African American transgender woman.
Many of these contradictions and questions were reported by Timothy Cweik, a reporter for Philadelphia Gay News who has followed the story of Morris’ story since the first reports of her death. Cweik reported the following contradictions and procedural lapses in the Morris case:
* 2:45 a.m. Police accounts say 6th District office Elizabeth Skala stopped outside of the Key West Bar and offered Morris a courtesy ride. Witness accounts say that Office Skala stopped to ask if Morris needed to be taken to a hospital, but Morris “waved off” Officer Skala’s offer. Officer Skala denied this first encounter.
* 3:07 a.m. – The first 911 call is placed and an ambulance dispatched to the 16th and Juniper, outside of the Key West Bar. Ninth District Officer Kenneth Novak was also dispatched, with Officer Skala as his back-up. Novak and Skala accepted the assignment to investigate the situation outside of the Key West Bar. Dispatch records show Officer Novak arrived first, but Officer Skala says she arrived fist.
* Skala then indicated to Novak that she did not require his assistance with Morris — who, aside from being intoxicated, was over six feet tall and a foot taller than officer Skala. Novack did not place himself back in service for new assignments, but instead tried to catch up with Skala on the courtesy ride, but did not use his police radio to coordinate movements with Skala, and arrived at the scene too late.
* Officer Skala then says she gave Morris a ride home, but thought Morris said she lived at 15th and Walnut streets, where police report Morris asked to getout of the vehicle. According to Officer Skala, the ride lasted four minutes. Her log indicated that it lasted 16 minutes.
* 3:25 a.m. Ninth District Officer Thomas Berry said he offered to help Morris out of the car at 15th and Walnut Streets, but that she did not need his help. Witnesses at the Key West Bar said that Morris was unable to stand on her own and had to be helped into the police car.
* The officers’ logs at this point record the incident as a successful hospital run, and do not record Morris leaving the police car at 15th and Walnut streets.
* 3:35 a.m. – A second series of 911 calls takes place when Morris is found at 16th and Walnut streets, injured and unconscious , but breathing. Officer Berry takes control of the scene, and reports the incident as a “DK,” police department code for a drunken fall. Officer Berry did not interview the citizen who discovered Morris and stopped to help her. No photographs were taken of the scene, nor was evidence such as Morris’ purse and hair brush preserved.
* Berry’s incident report said he left the injury scene at 3:35 a.m., but a 911 tape indicates Berry did not leave the scene until 4:05 a.m., as paramedics were placing Morris in the ambulance.
* Officer Novak was assigned to investigate the scene, and accepted the assignment, but no report was filed.
* Citizen witnesses said that no first aid appeared to be offered to Morris, nor were any apparent efforts made to stabilize her head before moving her or placing her in the ambulance. Witnesses also said that before Morris was placed in the ambulance, Officer Berry covered used Morris’ jacket to cover her face, as if to indicate that she was already dead.
* 4:15 a.m. – Hospital records indicate Morris’ admission to Thomas Jefferson University Hospital. Records also indicate that the hospital summoned police officers to help identify Morris, whom they suspected was a crime victim, which suggests Morris was delivered to the hospital without being identified.
* Officer Novak was dispatched to the hospital to investigate. Novack calls Officers Berry and Skala to the hospital, where the three again assess the cause of Morris’ injury as a drunken fall. No reports are filed concerning the investigation at the hospital.
* Morris remained in the hospital for 64 hours, unidentified. Officer Novak, however, was familiar with Morris due to her previous arrests for offenses related to prostitution. At no point did he share identify her to hospital staff. Hospital records show staff efforts to identify Morris, whose fingerprints would have been on file due to her previous arrests.
* Witnesses at the injury scene also identified Morris to Officer Berry by name and her employment at Bob and Barbaras. There is no indication that Officer Berry passed this information to the hospital.
* Morris is removed from life support after 64 hours in the hospital, and her family is informed of her death the following day.
Questions and concerns led to the first of several LGBT community meetings, protests and vigils in response to Morris’ death and the police department’s handling of the investigation.
In April 2003 the Philadelphia Police Department released an edited version of the 911 recording, which included 3 transmissions between officers Skala, Novak, and Berry. The edited recording started at 3:07 a.m. and ended six minutes later.
The same month, in response to community concern, District Attorney Lynne Abraham launched an investigation of Morris’ case, and promised to seek physical evidence, including the related 911 recording. However, the investigation ended in December 2003, without finding Morris’ killer. Abraham asked for the public’s help to investigate the case further, stated that the three officers in the case acted properly, and cited the courtesy ride given to Morris as a “humanitarian gesture.”
In September 2003 the Center for Lesbian and Gay Civil Rights launched a civil suit against the Key West Bar where Morris became intoxicated, the police officers involved, the emergency technicians and the city of Philadelphia itself. The suit was settled for $250,000 in May 2004.
In December 2003, in response to community pressure, the Police Advisory Commission released dispatch records suggesting that the transmissions on the tape lasted for 49 minutes.
In January 2007 the Philadelphia Police Department refused to release an unedited version of the 911 recording, citing that the 911 tapes were not subject to release under the Right to Know Act. On March 2007 the department agreed to play a complete version of the 911 tape for the Police Advisory Commission.
One part of the hate crimes bill allows federal agencies to step in where local agencies either cannot or will not conduct thorough investigations of hate crimes, and that would certainly seem to apply in Nizah Morris’ case. Pennsylvania’s hate crimes law on December 3, 2002, and included both sexual orientation and gender identity. And, since no one who knows what happened to Nizah from the moment she was placed in the police car until the moment she was found with a severe (and eventually fatal) head injury, it’s difficult to classify it as a hate crime.
But how do you classify the police department’s handling of the case, which seems at almost every turn to depart from procedures or cloak information about what really happened? Is obstruction a hate crime? Is it a hate crime to sweep a crime under the carpet because the victim is a African American transgender woman labeled a sex worker?
Listen to this interview with Tim Cweik, a reporter for Philadelphia Gay News who has followed Nizah Morris’ case from the beginning. He floats a theory that the police were not taking Nizah home, given her condition, but taking her to a hospital. (My guess is that they have to get people in that shape to a hospital, because of liability issues.) And when Morris got wind of that they were taking her to the hospital instead of home, she may have put up some kind of resistance, and the police officers responded with excessive force. Officers, faced with a career-ending situation, decided to cover it up, or were told to cover it. up, because their lives were worth more than that of “an African American transgender prostitute” (though words much less kind were probably used.
If that’s the case, the only response is what Ethan St. Pierre said in his interview with Cweik.
They can twist it any way they want. And they can look at it and be bigoted and prejudiced any way they want. … This was a human life. This was somebody’s child somebody’s sibling. She was loved. She was not alone in this world, and somebody that they thought they could just discard. That nobody would miss.
We are all somebody’s child, somebody’s brother or sister. We are all someone who would be missed by someone.
We all matter.
That’s the point, isn’t it?