Indian reservation cases stress Oklahoma prosecutors

The Oklahoma attorney general’s office has been hogged with cases related to crime on Indian reservations, as inmates file appeals testing the scope of the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling that Congress no ever removed the Muscogee (Creek) reservation, according to a top state attorney.

In addition to convicted felons trying to win their freedom, several Oklahoma tribes are seeking recognition of their historic reservations, and at least one former inmate wants reimbursement for all court costs paid to the state.

Meanwhile, on Friday, the US Attorney’s Office in Muskogee announced that it had filed 40 cases in the past two weeks – most of them for murder, manslaughter and sexual abuse – stemming from the transition from criminal jurisdiction in eastern Oklahoma from the state to the federal government.

Many of the new federal charges involved state inmates whose convictions were overturned two weeks ago when the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals ruled that the Cherokee and Chickasaw reservations had never been removed.

Acting U.S. Attorney Christopher J. Wilson said his office had identified cases of violent offenders in state custody before the rulings were made on the Cherokee and Chickasaw reservations.

He said, “The collective efforts of our state, local, tribal, and federal partners have enabled our office to put federal charges in place to prevent these violent offenders from being released. The 40 files submitted to date are only the beginning. We are reviewing and making charging decisions on additional cases daily.

“In addition, we have already uncovered approximately 150 violent offender cases in the Choctaw and Seminole areas over which we plan to assume federal criminal jurisdiction if the (Court of Criminal Appeals) issues similar rulings.”

State Challenges

The range of challenges facing state prosecutors are outlined in a routine petition filed last week with the U.S. Supreme Court by Oklahoma Assistant Attorney General Caroline EJ Hunt.

The motion was a request for more time to file a response in the case of death row inmate James Coddington, who wants the High Court to review his conviction.

Hunt told the court she didn’t have time to file the response until April 5, at least in part because of the workload created by the Supreme Court’s decision in the McGirt case. last year.

In that decision, the High Court ruled that convicted child rapist Jimcy McGirt had been wrongly tried by the state because he was a Native American and his crimes had been committed on the Creek reservation, which did not never officially dissolved.

Under federal law, major crimes involving tribal members committed on reservations are prosecuted by the federal government. The state of Oklahoma has prosecuted most major violent crimes in all 77 counties since the state’s inception in 1907, assuming there were no Indian reservations in the state.

“Since the July 2020 ruling, the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals has ordered hearings on the basis of McGirt in eighty-two (82) cases that had previously been dropped based on the ongoing McGirt litigation or that have been filed since the ruling,” Hunt told the court.

She said she had been “a resource person consulted on the preparations of other attorneys during these hearings into McGirt’s evidence, which involve allegations as to the existence of multiple reservations beyond the Creek reservation. Nation”.

Hunt’s letter reveals details about some of the McGirt-related cases he is handling:

• The state attorney general’s office disputes claims that the Ottawa Tribal Reservation still exists in the northeast corner of the state.

The state argues in this case that the federal government cut federal funding and recognition of the tribe in 1956, and that an appeal filed by a convicted drug offender falls outside the McGirt case.

In recent decisions, the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals ruled that the Cherokee and Chickasaw reservations were never removed, and similar decisions are expected soon regarding the Choctaw and Seminole reservations. This will make most of eastern Oklahoma subject to federal criminal jurisdiction law.

These four reserves were to be recognized under the McGirt decision, which specifically concerned the Creek reserve. The Cherokees, Chickasaws, Choctaws, Creeks and Seminoles – known as the Five Tribes – were forcibly moved to Indian Territory and entered into similar treaties with the federal government before their reservations became part of Oklahoma in 1907.

Although the state attorney general’s office forcefully argued that the Creek reservation did not exist, it did in fact accept in state court cases that the McGirt decision applied to other members of the five tribes. .

However, he will dispute the claims of other tribes that their reservations still exist.

• The Attorney General plans to fight this month the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals ruling that overturned the state’s convictions of death row inmate Shaun Michael Bosse. In her letter to the U.S. Supreme Court, Hunt said she was drafting a motion for a rehearing in the case.

Hunt’s letter does not detail what the state will support in the case. Bosse, a non-Indian, was convicted of murdering Katrina Griffin and her two young children, all members of the Chickasaw Nation. Oklahoma’s attorney general argued in the case that the state still had jurisdiction to prosecute Bosse because he was not a member of a tribe, but the Court of Criminal Appeals ruled that he did. federal prosecution because his victims were Indians and the murders took place. on the Chickasaw reservation.

A spokesperson for the Attorney General’s Office told The Oklahoman, “We can confirm that we are in the process of developing the next steps in our legal strategy with respect to recent court rulings to ensure that Oklahomans, whether they are Native Americans or not. , are safe in person and property and will re-declare before Wednesday’s deadline.

• Hunt is assisting the Muskogee County District Attorney’s Office with a defendant whose conviction was overturned and is now seeking reimbursement of fines, costs and fees collected by the state.

The former inmate is Kayla Ann Jones, whose child abuse and neglect convictions were overturned due to the McGirt ruling. The case file shows fines of $2,000 and hundreds of dollars in miscellaneous costs. The district court did not rule on whether the state should return the money.

Concern for the victims

Wilson, the acting U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Oklahoma, based in Muskogee, said his staff “worked many long and stressful hours reviewing law enforcement reports and preparing court documents. The logistics of processing this volume of cases were challenging and required the cooperation of district attorneys’ offices, sheriff’s offices, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the United States Marshals Service, and the US Department of Corrections. ‘Oklahoma.

Oklahoma Attorney General Mike Hunter and leaders of the Cherokee and Chickasaw nations called on Congress to get involved; they seek federal legislation allowing tribes and the state to negotiate covenants giving state attorneys jurisdiction over certain cases involving tribal members on reservations.

Prosecutors and tribal leaders have been particularly sensitive to the victims of crimes and the impact of overturning convictions. In some cases, prosecutors have been unable to bring charges again.

“While prior state convictions are overturned for lack of jurisdiction, victims and families of victims are forced to relive the entire process,” Wilson said. “We are committed to assisting victims of these violent crimes as their cases navigate the federal criminal justice system. »

Nohemi M. Moore