Cops Accused of Bias in Death of Transgender
[PHILADELPHIA, PA] - EVERY WEEK Nizah Morris dressed in a leopard-print gown, painted on thick black eyeliner and lip-synched her favorite Eartha Kitt songs for a bar full of people.
She stood there, tall and statuesque, on the small stage in Bob and Barbara's - a club on South Street near 15th, where light from the disco ball flickered off the Pabst beer signs - and she belonged.
|Nizah Morris, 47.|
Still, she had built a life for herself, performing at the drag show, helping her mother at a day-care center and practicing Buddhism.
All that ended on a frosty night last month, when Morris was found dead on a Center City street, her head smashed with such force that she fell into a coma and never awoke.
In the nearly five weeks since she died, the mystery surrounding Morris' death has deepened. And now, the Police Department finds itself accused of taking the investigation lightly, adding fresh strain to bad feelings between the police and members of Philadelphia's gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community.
Worsening the controversy are the scant facts about Morris' death. The city medical examiner has declared her death a homicide.
"She had a blunt wound to the head that shifted her brain," her mother, Roslyn Wilkins, said the medical examiner told her. The spokesman for the medical examiner's office would not release details of the autopsy.
The police, however, aren't sure that it was a homicide. They say they need more tests of her brain tissue before they can be confident Morris did not smash her head in an accidental fall.
That fuels criticism from supporters of the transgendered community who say cops are doing a shoddy investigation because they don't care about what happens to transgendered people.
"A lot of people in the transgendered community feel police don't respect and understand them," said transgender community activist Kathy Padilla.
Ben Singer, a transgender person and activist, said: "We don't want this to happen again. We're sick of it. We're concerned police may not have inspected this thoroughly."
But Police Homicide Capt. Charles Bloom defended the investigation.
"Just because we haven't put it in the category of homicide doesn't mean we're not investigating it," he said.
The night she died, Morris had been at Key West, a bar on Juniper Street near Locust in the so-called "Gayborhood." Although she was usually not a heavy drinker, she overdid it that night. Early on Dec. 22, she collapsed on the street outside the bar.
Passing police officers helped her up and offered to drive her to her home in West Philadelphia, police said. She agreed, but after going a few blocks she asked to be let out, they said.
Cops let her out on Walnut Street near 15th, at about 3:25 a.m.
About five minutes later, motorists passing by found her lying a block away in the street with a head injury.
She died on Christmas Eve.
Police Homicide Capt. Thomas Lippo said detectives continue to investigate, but haven't found anyone who witnessed what happened to Morris.
"We don't know what happened from the time she got out of the car and walked a block," he said.
Although born Robert Morris, she long ago became Nizah, said Morris' grief-stricken mother and sister. She took female hormones, had breast implants and wore female clothing, although she had not had surgery to alter her genitalia.
She hated boys' toys even as a little kid, said her sister, Andrea Dhunna. Morris would reject G.I. Joes as Christmas presents.
"It started when she was in the sixth grade," said her mother. "By the time she was 21, she was taking female hormones."
"She used to give us pointers on makeup and how to dress," said Dhunna.
Nizah was a name she gave herself, years ago.
Morris' mother and sister said they always loved her for who she was.
"We get so into character that the birth name, we bury," said Jaci Adams, a longtime friend who is also transgender.
Another friend, Joyce Brandon, who also "used to be a transgender," knew Morris since the '80s, when she was making the transition to a female life. "It was very hard then," Brandon said.
After years of confusion and some hard partying, Morris "did calm down a lot," Brandon said.
In fact, in recent years, Morris seemed to have found peace.
"At the time of her death," Adams said, "she had spun her life around and done positive things with her life."
She worked at her mother's day-care center, where she was popular with the parents and kids, her mother said. And she found solace in her religion, Buddhism.
Dhunna said she had been in Alcoholics Anonymous to control her drinking.
She also loved performing in the weekly drag show at Bob and Barbara's.
Last year, she won the bar's beauty and talent pageant, making her the reigning "Miss Bob and Barbara's."
Her good looks - she was over six feet tall, with short dark hair and perfect makeup - were famed.
"To be 47 and look the way she looked, she gave us inspiration to keep going in the lifestyle," said fellow performer Tina Williams.
Morris' friends at Bob and Barbara's did a tribute show for her last week, lip-syncing Judy Garland, Eartha Kitt and Patti LaBelle.
Her mother, sister and other family members sat on one side. Tears poured down Wilkins' face as one singer performed the R&B song "Stranger in My House."
Wilkins said that her daughter had performed shows for her, at home, on her birthday.
Morris' family said they're confused by some details about her death. They said that Morris had been frightened of the police and that they did not believe she would have willingly gotten into the police car. They also could not understand why she would get out where she did, since she lived miles away.
Capt. Lippo said Morris' friends helped her into the car and reassured her, according to the officers there that night.
He also noted that police have been working closely with Morris' family and friends throughout the investigation.
Members of the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community said Morris may have been a homicide target because of her lifestyle.
"It could happen to any one of us," said Williams. "It's so strange that she died in such a horrendous way."