Tall and proud, Jaci Adams stands at the podium and addresses the members of the Police Advisory Commission. “The night Nizah got killed, I was up on Old York Road getting ready to turn a trick,” says the 53-year-old transgender woman without hesitation or shame to the crowd gathered in the William Way Community Center ballroom. “I got a phone call, and overnight I became an advocate for the trans community. I haven’t been out on Old York Road since.”
Last week, the PAC met at William Way to reach out to the LGBT community, part of a larger effort to become more visible and more accessible to citizens throughout the city. The biggest issue on the agenda that night was reopening the case on Nizah Morris, a transgender woman and popular drag performer at Bob and Barbara’s who was killed in December 2002 under mysterious circumstances.
Eight years later, the wounds from Morris’ death remain fresh, especially to those who live in similar circumstances. “The whole population is still angered, still hurt, still don’t trust those that are supposed to serve and protect us,” Adams says later in an interview. “We’re hopeful that answers come somehow.”
A few facts about Morris’ death are undisputed: She left the Key West Bar and Grille in the Gayborhood about 3 a.m. Dec. 22, 2002, nearly incoherent and having trouble standing on her own. Police Officer Elizabeth Skala responded to a 911 call made on Morris’ behalf, decided to call off an ambulance and give Morris a courtesy ride to 15th and Walnut, where she thought Morris had said she lived (her home was actually at 50th and Walnut). Skala dropped Morris off at 15th—and within minutes, Morris was found unconscious in the street a block away, victim of a head trauma. Two days later, she died in the hospital. Her death was officially ruled a homicide.
The transgender community was outraged, and many questions went unanswered—Did Skala make the right call to refuse an ambulance, and to then leave Morris on her own? Was Morris drunk, on drugs or otherwise impaired and to what degree? Who hit Morris in the head and when? How far did police responsibility go, and did Morris’ past arrests for prostitution affect their treatment of her and the subsequent investigation? Other officers came and went before and after Morris was dropped off—what was their role? Contradictions between witness accounts and officer logs only added to the confusion.
The PAC investigated and originally issued an opinion in 2007 relieving the police of any responsibility for Morris’ death. Later, thanks to the work of activists and Philadelphia Gay News reporter Timothy Cwiek, it came to light that important evidence had been withheld or was missing from the investigation—911 tapes, the police homicide file and more.
In response, the PAC reopened the case in 2009 and reached an agreement with the District Attorney’s Office to view all the relevant material, but agreed to a nondisclosure agreement under which only a few PAC members could view the documents, and they weren’t allowed to reproduce them.
The new set of PAC commissioners, confirmed last year, says that’s not good enough. “Our concern is, if we’re relying on something as mushy as somebody else’s recollection, how can you show that to the community?” says Ronda Goldfein, a PAC commissioner and executive director of the AIDS Law Project of Pennsylvania.
To kick off the reopening of the case, PAC Counsel Michael Hayes sent a letter to both Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey and D.A. Seth Williams asking for another review of all relevant files and information. Police spokesman Sgt. Ray Evers verified that the commissioner received the letter, sent it down to the homicide unit and they intend to respond, possibly as soon as this week. The D.A.’s Office did not respond to request for comment.
“The D.A. won’t be happy about it, but we don’t care,” PAC Executive Director Bill Johnson laughed after the meeting when asked about reopening the files. “If they’ve left anything out we want to find out what it is.”
Even if no conclusive evidence comes to light the PAC wants to show it is making every effort to get to the bottom of the case. If the police or D.A.’s Office refuse their request, the next step is to issue a subpoena for the records.
“Do we think there’s a smoking gun? Not likely,” Goldfein says. “But you can’t render an opinion with half the information. It would be a disservice to Ms. Morris’ memory, and family, and any officers that may have been accused.”
Reopening Morris’ case is one of the first gestures of a new PAC eager to show it is revitalized, active and responsive to citizen concerns after taking criticism for years of minimal discernible activity. Officials seem to be taking the outreach seriously, as the heads of the City and State Human Relations Commissions, the city’s Director of LGBT Affairs Gloria Casarez and the police’s Deputy Commissioner for Internal Affairs, Stephen Johnson, all attended the William Way meeting, as well as members of the LGBT Police Liaison Committee.
“It’s recognized that historically there have been challenges,” says Casarez about tensions between queer-identified groups and the police. “I think that the new [PAC] members are in tune with good things that have been happening over the last several years that have been positive,” she adds, citing sensitivity trainings done by the Liaison Committee with new police recruit classes.
“Clearly there are issues that we hear from the LGBT community that we’re not going to hear from other neighborhoods,” Goldfein says. “This is a group with a very strong story to tell about what their issues are, and there is a long standing history of this community being treated poorly. Stigma against gay people is nothing new.”
The reopening of the Morris case is appreciated—with a caveat. Some of the attendees at the William Way meeting said they were angry because they’ve heard the promise before—“we’re investigating”— with no results. Adams admits she felt angry herself, but she tempered her feelings with a desire to let the new PAC do its job. “This is a new committee, it had nothing to do with old investigations,” Adams says. “They’re coming in our community and publicly saying they’re going to reopen the case and do some better fact-finding.”
Already, the Morris case has been the inspiration of Adams’ own personal transformation into a community activist. Previously, her life had taken some dangerous turns—at 9 years old she ran away from home from a father she says was full of hatred and drifted into the world of drugs and prostitution. “I been through it,” she says. “I come from the days of cops pulling my wigs off and calling me ‘he.’”
Her lifestyle led to altercations with the police, exacerbated by the disgust many officers showed to the transsexuals they arrested. “If you’re an officer of the law … you’re supposed to learn how to separate your issues and don’t look at me with such hate and disdain,” Adams says. It’s that mutual suspicion and distrust that made the Nizah Morris case such a flash point.
If nothing else, if there is no resolution, at least the attention paid to the Morris case has helped spotlight the problems between the police and transgender individuals and set the ball rolling for reforms. “I think that’s what brought awareness to the lack of acknowledgment to the trans community,” Adams says. “We just have to give this new committee a chance. And a fair chance.”
Election Day 2014: Tues., Nov. 4