Morris advocates: D.A.’s office abusing its discretion
by Timothy Cwiek
Jan 02, 2014 | 1164 views | 0 0 comments | 24 24 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Advocates for Nizah Morris say local prosecutors are abusing their discretion by ignoring critical evidence in the case, and they continue to push for a state probe in the matter.

The advocates point to a state law permitting Attorney General Kathleen G. Kane to investigate a homicide if it’s shown that local authorities are abusing their discretion.

Morris was a transgender woman who became a homicide victim in 2002, shortly after entering a Philadelphia police vehicle. The case remains unsolved.

Advocates for Morris say the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office is ignoring a key discrepancy in the case, involving a purported cellphone conversation between Sgt. Michael Dougherty and Officer Elizabeth Skala.

Dougherty told the D.A.’s office in 2003 that he gave Skala permission to give Morris a courtesy ride during a cellphone conversation, minutes before Morris was fatally injured.

But Skala told the Police Advisory Commission in 2006 that she only spoke to Morris and her dispatcher about the ride, prior to embarking on it. Skala said it wasn’t necessary to get permission from a supervisor, because the ride only lasted three blocks.

The D.A.’s alleged failure to pursue this discrepancy constitutes an abuse of discretion, Morris advocates contend.

The advocates also point to evidence in their possession — including 911 audio transmissions, patrol-activity logs, computerized time-response logs and the Morris police report — which the D.A.’s office says it doesn’t have.

The time-response logs verify that Morris wasn’t taken to a hospital for more than an hour after the first 911 call was placed on her behalf. The 911 transmissions conflict with Dougherty’s claim that he gave Skala permission for the ride.

The patrol-activity logs show that Skala and two other responding officers failed to document the ride. The police report cites Morris’ transgender status, yet concludes she was simply a drunk person, not a crime victim.

“It’s imperative for Attorney General Kane to look into the Morris case,” said former state Rep. Babette Josephs. “We have all this evidence that’s highly incriminating of the police. And the D.A.’s office apparently could care less about reviewing it. It’s an untenable situation, and we urge Ms. Kane to promptly intervene.”

Joseph C. Peters, a spokesperson for Kane, had no comment for this story.

Morris advocates also blast the D.A.’s office for failing to account for dozens of evidentiary items that appear to be misplaced, though they were documented in a 2003 court filing.

The misplaced items include surveillance tapes along Walnut Street — where the injured Morris was found — and a search warrant for AT&T cellphone records.

The D.A.’s office refuses to comment on the missing evidence, nor will representatives say what safeguards, if any, have been instituted to avoid future evidentiary losses.

Efforts for a state probe received a boost in April, when the Police Advisory Commission recommended that Kane review the Morris case.

But in May, Lawrence M. Cherba, director of the state Attorney General’s Criminal Law Division, told the PAC that a probe of Morris’ death wasn’t in the office’s jurisdiction.

“However, we are referring your inquiry to the [Philadelphia] District Attorney’s Office and requesting the District Attorney to advise or assist you,” Cherba stated in a May 23 letter.

No further assistance was provided by the D.A.’s office, prompting Morris advocates to renew their pleas for Kane’s involvement.

The Justice for Nizah committee, which was formed in August, is gathering endorsements from various groups for a state probe.

The ACLU of Greater Philadelphia and the Jewish Social Policy Action Network recently announced their support for a state probe into the Morris case.

Other groups contacted for support include Lambda Legal, the National Center for Transgender Equality and the National Center for Lesbian Rights.

Typically, Kane must petition a judge for approval prior to initiating a homicide probe on the grounds that local prosecutors are abusing their discretion.

But in 2011, the D.A.’s office reportedly allowed the Police Advisory Commission to review its entire Morris file, aside from internal staff memos.

If the D.A.’s office provides Kane with similar access, judicial approval may not be necessary for a preliminary review to take place.

The next meeting of the J4N committee will be held 6 p.m. Jan. 13 at the William Way LGBT Community Center, 1315 Spruce St. The public is invited to attend.

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