Nizah Morris, a transgender woman, sustained a fatal head wound while in the custody of Philadelphia police officers Elizabeth Skala, Kenneth Novak and Thomas Berry on December 22, 2002. She later died while in the Jefferson University Hospital on the 24th. Circumstances surrounding her death were never fully understood by the community, and now 10 years later the community and Morris's family are demanding further investigation into the current probes being handled by the local DA office and Philadelphia police internal affairs department.
Media coverage surrounding Morris in the coming months of her death was fair and respectful, but now her family and the LGBT community at large need the media to question what happened that night.
On the night in question, an intoxicated Morris received a "courtesy ride" from officer Elizabeth Skala - a ride many say doesn't come without strings attached for members of the Trans community. In fact, according to the landmark Injustice at Every Turn study, 60% of black transgender people report having been harassed, physically assaulted, or sexually assaulted by police. This is why nearly half of all transgender people (46%) say they are uncomfortable asking police for help.
It should be noted that Morris and officer Skala had an earlier encounter before she was called to the bar to assist Morris.
"On the morning of her fatal injury, Morris managed to waive off 6th District Officer Elizabeth Skala during their first encounter, when Skala drove by Key West, and warned Morris about lying in the street with her "tits" exposed. Morris told Skala she'd be OK, that she was staying with friends at 16th and Chestnut streets, according to a witness. But minutes later, Skala returned, and this time Morris had little choice but to go inside her vehicle. Onlookers who placed Morris inside Skala's patrol car told PGN they were reassured, thinking Skala would take Morris to a place of safety"
Morris was not safe, however, and she would soon receive the head wound that would kill her two days later.
A suit filed by Morris's mother won her a $250,000 settlement, but even after that case, it is still unclear what happened that night. Police claim that two remarkable (and many would say unlikely) events occurred while Morris was in their custody. According to police:
"...Morris sobered up, and she changed her mind about going home. In fact, police say, Morris sobered up so successfully; she exited Skala's vehicle mid-way into the 1400 block of Walnut Street, without requiring the assistance of 9th District Officer Thomas Berry, who also was present. At the time, Morris' blood-alcohol level was about .342, and she had marijuana in her system, according to the toxicology report. It was Berry who, minutes later, would take control of the post-injury scene at 16th and Walnut streets, where Morris was discovered by passing motorists, lying bleeding and unconscious in the middle of the street. Although paramedics worked on Morris for about 30 minutes, trying to discover what was wrong with her, Berry decided within two minutes that Morris wasn't a crime victim, according to a 9-1-1 tape obtained by PGN. A prompt police investigation of her injury did not occur, not even after Novak, Berry and Skala visited Morris at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital later that morning, where Morris was lying in the neurological intensive-care unit with a life-threatening head wound"
Local Philadelphia media, along with national media outlets, can play a major part in putting the pressure on authorities to further investigate and bring closure to this case. Morris's family and the city's lesbian, gay, bisexual and especially trans communities shouldn't be the only ones demanding to know what happened to Morris while in police custody.
Officer Elizabeth Skala-DiDonato, 33 Officer Thomas Berry, 42
Officer Kenneth Novak, 44
During a police advisory meeting, Bradly Brown, Morris’ sister and a former police officer herself, said she thinks she knows what happened.
“When I went to the morgue and saw the wound on Nizah’s head, it was a wound I’d seen many times. Clearly, she was hit by the butt of a gun.”