Philly newspaper subpoenas DA in murder investigation of trans activist

by Fred Kuhr

Attorneys representing Philadelphia Gay News subpoenaed District Attorney Larry Krasner this past June in order to force him to testify at a court hearing stemming from the mysterious 2002 death of African-American trans activist Nizah Morris.

The subpoena asks for Krasner to testify as well as turn over the entire Morris homicide file from his office.

But last month, Krasner challenged the subpoena, according to PGN. In a 115-page filing, attorneys for Krasner argue that he shouldn’t be required to appear, citing three privileges that would preclude his appearance.

Trans activist Nizah Morris

According to the DA’s brief, as published in PGN, “The deliberative process privilege protects the thoughts, ideas, and analyses that encompass how an agency reaches a decision. … If [PGN] seeks District Attorney Krasner’s testimony about his involvement in prosecutorial decisions relating to the investigation into the death of Nizah Morris, the testimony would be protected by the deliberative process privilege.”

Regarding the law-enforcement privilege, “District Attorney Krasner’s testimony concerning his involvement in the investigation of this case plainly relates to a criminal investigation and could reveal law enforcement techniques, internal deliberations, and internal policies and procedures employed by the DAO. Thus, the law enforcement privilege provides an additional, independent basis to quash [PGN’s] subpoena,” the brief states.  

Regarding the work-product privilege, “[PGN] is not entitled to obtain testimony from District Attorney Krasner about his mental impressions and legal opinions of this case. That is the work product of the prosecutor and therefore protected from disclosure pursuant to the work-product privilege,” according to the brief.

The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and the Pennsylvania NewsMedia Association filed an amicus brief last month in support of PGN’s request for additional records in the Morris case.

The July 9 amicus brief asserts that the state’s Criminal History Records Information Act doesn’t bar the release of all criminal records, PGN reported. The amicus brief also notes that Krasner has indicated support for transparency in the Morris case.

The amicus brief was written by Paula Knudsen Burke, a staff attorney with the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, and Melissa Bevan Melewsky, media law counsel for the Pennsylvania NewsMedia Association. In a joint statement, they said, “Hopefully the court sees PGN’s dogged advocacy in the Nizah Morris case and recognizes that public access is not only legally required, but it’s the right thing to do. This case has lingered unsolved for too long, and access could lead to a positive development or illustrate the need for a change in policy or practices.”

On the same day, city attorneys filed a brief stating that PGN has received numerous Morris records due to a 2008 court order and isn’t entitled to about 30 interviews and legal memorandum at the DA’s office. According to the city, those additional records don’t fall under the purview of the court order, reported PGN.

The city’s brief emphasizes the “inaccessibility” of the DA’s Morris records. “The City cannot sue the DAO to seize investigatory documents that are DAO created property and that the City has no right to compel,” the brief states.

Morris was found dead after suffering a head injury on Dec. 24, 2002, after Morris accepted what is known as a “courtesy ride” from Philadelphia police. It started when Officer Elizabeth Skala initiated a traffic stop that involved Morris. Since Morris was inebriated, Skala offered to give Morris a ride. Skala and fellow officer Thomas Berry are the last known people to see Morris alive. The role of Officer Kenneth Novak, who was also involved in the traffic stop, remains unclear.

Since then, PGN has repeatedly attempted to obtain police and other official records related to Morris’ death, to no avail.

Whatever investigation that was made into Morris’ death was never completed, and all three officers reportedly remain employed by the city. Not one of the officers was charged with any wrongdoing in connection to the case, and details remain a mystery.

Volume 23
Issue 5

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