Case could mean Indians inside the borders of Indian reservations can only be tried in federal, not state courts
In a case that could have wide-reaching consequences, the US 10th Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver has overturned the murder conviction and death sentence of Patrick Dwayne Murphy, who was convicted in McIntosh County of murdering George Jacobs and cutting his genitals off beside a rural road outside Henryetta.
The decision kicked the case back to federal prosecutors in Muskogee on whether to prosecute him in US District Court here.
Murphy’s lawyers contended that Oklahoma state courts lacked the jurisdiction to try his case, because he is a member of the Muscogee (Creek) nation, and the crime was committed within the borders of an Indian nation, meaning only federal courts have the jurisdiction to prosecute him.
The 10th Circuit court agreed with that, based on federal law that provides exclusive federal jurisdiction over murders committed by Indians in Indian country. The Muscogee (Creek) nation’s territory, which encompasses much of Muskogee and McIntosh Counties, is considered a reservation for purposes of federal law.
Lawyers are still poring over the repercussions of the decision, handed down yesterday. But first appearances seem to indicate that the ruling means no Indian accused of a crime within the borders of an Indian reservation can be tried in any other court than federal.
The appeals court noted that “the State of Oklahoma does not have jurisdiction over crimes committed by or against an Indian in Indian Country”. Indian Country, as defined by the court, is a the entire block of land set aside for an Indian Reservation, no matter what happens to the title of individual plots within the area, including rights-of-way, meaning the entire land mass of the initial reservation.
To punctuate its point, the court described the case of a man in Washington who was convicted of burglarizing a home inside an Indian reservation that was owned by a non-Indian. The federal court in that case ruled that the home still counted as being in Indian Country because anything inside the reservation’s borders is still Indian Country, regardless of who owns the property.
According to the ruling, any crime on the Major Crimes List committed by or against an Indian in those boundaries falls exclusively under the jurisdiction of federal courts. The state of Oklahoma is likely to appeal the ruling to the United States Supreme Court, during which the execution of the precedent it sets would also be stayed.
Crimes covered in the ruling include murder, manslaughter, kidnapping, maiming, sexual abuse, incest, assault with a weapon, assault against a child, child abuse and neglect, arson, burglary, robbery and theft.
Oklahoma Attorney General Mike Hunter said his office is reviewing the decision. His staff previously had asked the appeals court to uphold Murphy’s state court conviction.