Oral arguments have been scheduled for next month in an open-records case involving records held at the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office relating to the death of Nizah Morris.
Morris, 47, was a trans woman of color who was found with a fractured skull shortly after getting a police “courtesy ride” from the area of 13th and Walnut to 16th and Walnut on Dec. 22, 2002. Her homicide remains unsolved.
In April 2018, trans attorney Julie Chovanes requested all records at the office relating to the Morris case, citing the state’s Right-to-Know Law. Last week, attorneys at the DA’s Office filed a legal brief opposing transparency in the Morris case. The brief was filed two days past its September 3 deadline but was accepted by the court clerk’s office.
Cameron Kline, a spokesperson for the DA’s Office, said the late filing was due to an “error.”
“I spoke with the prosecutor who apologizes for the error, but the reason the filing was late was because they, unfortunately, missed the deadline,” Kline said in an email.
The matter is pending before Common Pleas Court Judge Edward C. Wright, who is scheduled to hear oral arguments on Oct. 17 at 10 a.m. in room 243 of City Hall.
Chovanes’ brief relies heavily on a statement made by DA Larry Krasner during a February 2018 press conference. In response to a question by PGN, Krasner said: “In reference to the Nizah Morris case, which is not a pending criminal matter in this office, as you know. It happened many years ago and charges were not brought, although there was a civil lawsuit around it. I can say a little bit more than I can say about a lot of cases because this is not something that is being prosecuted at this time.”
Chovanes contends that since the DA’s Office isn’t investigating the matter, Morris’s records should be publicly accessible. But, so far, the DA’s Office has declined to release its records to Chovanes, other than a nine-page transcript of 911 recordings transcribed by a PGN reporter and a computer-dispatch record relating to the case.
The DA’s brief emphasizes that the case is an “open” homicide that hasn’t been solved. As a result, its records are confidential. “The case remains open, but there is no pending
prosecution,” the brief states. “The DA’s Office respectfully asks that this appeal be denied because [Chovanes] plainly seeks nonpublic records of a criminal investigation.”
The DA’s brief goes on to state, “All of the records that [Chovanes] seeks in the possession of the DA’s Office are not public records because they are confidential criminal-investigative records.”
Chovanes expressed hope that the records will be released. "I’m deeply interested in this case as a trans citizen of the city, especially in this current environment,” Chovanes told PGN. “Times are getting worse for trans people, not better. And I appreciate that DA Larry Krasner is a noted progressive, but I just hope he does the right thing. We've been waiting 16 years for transparency in the Nizah Morris case. That's long enough."