Law/Justice

Joleen Nez: A Death in Custody

By Cecelia Nowell, The Nation

How racism, negligence, and a politically connected medical provider turned homelessness into a capital crime.

n April 16, 2020, Officer Preston Panana walked up to Joleen Nez at the corner of Texas Street and Zuni Avenue in Albuquerque. Nez was living in a nearby encampment in a neighborhood known as the War Zone, along with dozens of other unhoused Native Americans. About six months pregnant with her fifth child, Nez, who is Navajo and Zia Pueblo, was getting her meals at the Albuquerque Indian Center, where she’d known some of the staff for years.

Panana was with four other police officers when he heard Nez and a man arguing. As the two quarreled, the man set a paper cup and bowl down on the sidewalk, and Nez knocked them over. That’s when, as Panana wrote in the incident report, he advised her “to pick up her litter and of the consequences if she did not.”

Nez had just started walking away, but she turned back and grabbed the bowl. Panana told her the cup was still on the ground. “It’s not my trash,” Nez said. “It’s his.” That didn’t matter to Panana, who cited Nez for littering.

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