District attorney names lesbian prosecutor as liaison to Phila.'s LGBT community

Helen "Nellie" Fitzpatrick , an assistant district attorney in Philadelphia, will coordinate prosecution of all hate crimes.
Helen "Nellie" Fitzpatrick , an assistant district attorney in Philadelphia, will coordinate prosecution of all hate crimes. (SHARON GEKOSKI-KIMMEL / Staff Photographer)
Posted: February 02, 2012

With Center City's "Gayborhood" and such community institutions as the Giovanni's Room bookstore, Philadelphia Gay News and the Equality Forum that annually draws tens of thousands to issue-events affecting sexual minorities, some might feel crimes based on sexual orientation are part of the past.

Helen "Nellie" Fitzpatrick says otherwise.

"It hasn't been my whole lifetime that it's been OK to be gay," said Fitzpatrick, 31, a prosecutor in the Philadelphia District Attorney's Office named last month as liaison to the city's LGBT - lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender - community.

"I know that for me in law school, my sexual orientation was a huge concern in my applying for jobs: whether or not it would be OK to be an open lesbian state attorney in Florida . . . whether I'd be able to compete for jobs as an open lesbian."

The chance to work and live openly in a city with a significant LGBT population brought the native Floridian to Philadelphia in 2008 after graduating from Florida Coastal School of Law.

"I moved here for the opportunity to work in the District Attorney's Office," Fitzpatrick said, "and I immediately fell in love with this city and everything it offers to somebody who is a member of our community."

It's also what motivated Fitzpatrick to apply when District Attorney Seth Williams posted an opening for liaison to the LGBT community last year.

LGBT liaison will not be the only part of Fitzpatrick's portfolio. She said she will also coordinate prosecution of all "hate crimes" and handle her full caseload in the Family Violence and Sexual Assault Unit.

Just last week, for example, Fitzpatrick prosecuted the case against Courtney Wilson, 56, charged with sexually assaulting five women - now in their 20s - when they were girls at a Cedarbrook church where he was a member. Wilson was held for trial.

The FBI's 2010 report on hate crimes - the most recent data - said 6,624 hate crimes involving 8,199 victims and 6,001 offenders were reported nationwide.

That total included 1,347 in Pennsylvania, 509 in New Jersey, and 56 in Delaware.

The FBI's data analysis showed that 48.2 percent of victims were targeted because of race, 18.9 percent for religion, 18.6 percent for sexual orientation, 13.7 percent for ethnicity or national origin, and 0.6 percent for disability.

Of 1,528 people targeted because of sexual orientation, the FBI found 57.3 percent were victims of antimale homosexual bias, 27.5 percent of antihomosexual bias, 11.8 percent antifemale homosexual bias, 1.4 percent anti-heterosexual bias, and 1.9 percent victims of anti-bisexual bias.

Critics of the FBI data say hate crimes of all types have historically been underreported and often miscategorized by police.

"I think what I hear in the community is that a lot of crime that occurs that seems to be targeted specifically because of who somebody is is not recognized," Fitzpatrick said. "Instead, it's treated as if it's merely a simple misdemeanor assault. . . . Crimes against somebody because of who they are should be aggressively prosecuted."

Today, the Police Department has its own liaison working with the LGBT community, which has been credited for building trust with people once targeted for arrest on "vice" or morals crimes.

Relations between the LGBT community and police reached a low point in 2002 with the Dec. 22 death of transgender entertainer Nizah Morris.

A pedestrian found Morris, 47, on the sidewalk, unconscious and bleeding from head wounds, about 3:25 a.m. at 15th and Walnut Streets. She died two days later.

The investigation into Morris' death - ruled a homicide - revealed that she arrived "visibly intoxicated" at a Center City bar but that the staff continued serving her.

By the time Morris left the bar at 3 a.m., she had a near-lethal blood-alcohol level of 0.40 percent - four times the legal limit for driving - and was "barely conscious."

Pedestrians were so concerned by Morris' condition that they called 911. Instead, court documents say, a police officer arrived, canceled the ambulance call, put Morris in the patrol car, and drove off.

At the time, police said Morris did not want to go to a hospital; she asked first to go to her West Philadelphia home but was then dropped off at 15th and Walnut. Minutes later, Morris was found on the street by a passerby.

The city Police Advisory Commission exonerated the officer in 2007 - three years after the city paid $250,000 to settle a civil rights lawsuit filed by Morris' mother. Morris' death remains unsolved.

Fitzpatrick is the city prosecutor's third LGBT liaison but the first lesbian.

The title was long held by Christopher Mallios, an openly gay man and, like Fitzpatrick, a prosecutor in the sex-crimes unit.

For the last 21/2 years, Mallios has trained sex-crimes prosecutors nationwide for the Washington-based federally funded AEquitas program.

Mallios said maintaining an LGBT liaison was important because Pennsylvania's Supreme Court in 2008 struck sexual orientation from the state hate-crime law.

"The need for training about hate crimes is a constant," Mallios said, adding, "It's part of community policing and community prosecution."

Contact staff writer Joseph A. Slobodzian at 215-854-2985, jslobodzian@phillynews.com, or @joeslobo on Twitter.

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