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Does the State of Oklahoma have jurisdiction in Indian Country?

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At least half of Oklahoma will be held to be Indian Country, fundamentally altering both civil and criminal jurisdiction

OKLAHOMA CITY -- On August 8, The 10th Circuit Court of Appeals reversed and remanded a death penalty conviction of a Muscogee (Creek) citizen, based on a decision that Patrick Dwayne Murphy should have been tried in federal court not state court since his offense occurred in Indian Country.

The landmark decision also brought into question the legal definition of Indian Country when the panel unanimously decided that the Muscogee (Creek) Nation’s reservation had not been disestablished and that the Nation’s 1866 Treaty boundaries define the tribe’s Indian Country.

At least half of Oklahoma will be held to be Indian Country, fundamentally altering both civil and criminal jurisdiction.

In a special webinar at noon Sept. 28, the University of Oklahoma College of Law will host a free webinar called “Congress Has Not Disestablished the Creek Reservation - Tenth Circuit Court Decision: What Does This Mean for Indian Country in Oklahoma?” to explore the ramifications of the decision for Oklahoma’s criminal justice system.

The University of Oklahoma College of Law Professors Lindsay Robertson, Taiawagi Helton and Steve Greetham will discuss the impact of recent Tenth Circuit decision on Indian Country in Oklahoma and what it means for tribes in both Oklahoma and across the U.S. 

Registration for the webinar can be found here.

Patrick Dwayne Murphy was tried and convicted in Oklahoma state court for the August 1999 death of George Jacobs, Sr., and was sentenced to death. In his appeal, Murphy claimed he was tried in the wrong court, challenging the jurisdiction of the Oklahoma state court in which he was convicted of murder and sentenced to death.

Murphy’s appeal argued he should have been tried in federal court because he is an Indian and the offense occurred in Indian country.

The 10th Circuit Court of Appeals agreed and remanded to the district court to issue a writ of habeas corpus vacating his conviction and sentence.

According to the panel’s decision, when an Indian is charged with committing a murder in Indian country, he or she must be tried in federal court. Murphy is a member of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation and because the homicide charged against him was committed in Indian country, the Oklahoma state courts lacked jurisdiction to try him.

Congress defined Indian country broadly to include Indian reservations, dependent Indian communities and Indian allotments. According to the decision, “all land within the borders of an Indian reservation - regardless of whether the tribe, individual Indians or non-Indians hold title to a given tract of land – is Indian country unless Congress has disestablished the reservation or diminished its borders. Fourth, only Congress may disestablish or diminish an Indian reservation.”

The panel concluded that Congress had not disestablished the borders of the Creek Reservation, and that Murphy should have been charged and tried in federal court.

In a written statement, Muscogee (Creek) Nation Principal Chief James Floyd supported the ruling. The Muscogee Nation joined the Seminole Nation and the United Keetoowah Band of Cherokee Indians to file an amicus brief in support of Murphy’s claim. 

“The Muscogee (Creek) Nation greatly appreciates the Tenth Circuit’s decision,” Floyd said. “(The) unanimous decision is a complete and unqualified victory for not only the Muscogee (Creek) Nation, but all of Indian Country. The court endorsed every principal argument that the nation advanced to find that Congress did not disestablish the Muscogee (Creek) Nation’s reservation boundaries and that its 1866 boundaries remain intact. This decision affirms the right of the nation and all other Indian nations to make and enforce their own laws within their own boundaries.”

The decision, if allowed to stand, could drastically affect which court has the authority to prosecute cases in 11 counties within the Muscogee (Creek) Nation’s boundaries. Tulsa, Broken Arrow and Muskogee, three of the largest cities within those boundaries, could be affected.

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Heide Brandes

Heide Brandes is an award-winning journalist and editor with more than 18 years of experience....

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