Criminal Justice Pitchpoled in Oklahoma Indian Country
A 2020 US Supreme Court decision turned criminal justice end over end for tribal members accused of crimes on certain tribal reservations in Oklahoma, including that of the Muscogee Nation. The court determined that Oklahoma never had authority to prosecute tribal members for state crimes alleged to have happened on reservation lands.
As a result, thousands of convictions were called into question. Defendants arrested on new criminal charges faced an uncertain future bouncing between county, tribal and federal agencies. If you are a tribal member charged with a crime in Oklahoma Indian Country, you need an attorney who knows their way around tribal courts and US courts. Jason Lile has the experience to skillfully represent clients facing criminal charges whether the case takes them to tribal court or to federal court.
McGirt v Oklahoma Summary
The US Supreme Court’s July 9, 2020 decision in McGirt v Oklahoma capped 14 years of litigation that, for a moment, reversed an Oklahoma court’s lengthy prison sentences.
Jimcy McGirt was the defendant. He was charged with three counts of sexual violence. His trial began in August of 1996 in Wagoner County, Oklahoma. The next year, he was convicted and sentenced to life without parole and two 500-year sentences.
McGirt’s attorneys appealed unsuccessfully to state courts, arguing that reservation boundaries established in the 19th Century had never been disestablished. They argued Oklahoma had jurisdiction over Muscogee tribal members on a reservation.
After Oklahoma appellate courts rejected McGirt’s arguments, his attorneys appealed to the US Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit. That court agreed with the tribal member’s argument. The state appealed that ruling to the United States Supreme Court.
The United States Supreme Court’s 2020 decision stated that the Muscogee Nation Reservation had never been disestablished, and that Oklahoma did in fact lack jurisdiction.
His crimes were listed under the Major Crimes Act of 1885, which means they had to be tried in federal court. McGirt was indicted by the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Oklahoma’s federal grand jury on August 18, 2020 with three counts of sexual crimes. A federal court sentenced McGirt to life without parole in federal prison.
What is the Significance of McGirt?
McGirt v Oklahoma is important because of the precedent it sets for crimes that are committed on tribal land by or against Indians. While it originally only applied to the Muscogee Nation, it has since been extended to the rest of the Five Civilized Tribes (Seminole, Choctaw, Cherokee, Chickasaw) and other Oklahoma tribes that were never disestablished.
From July 9, 2020 on, any crimes committed by or against Indians on tribal land cannot be tried by the State of Oklahoma. They are in the jurisdiction of the tribe whose land the crime was committed on.
In the case of McGirt, he was a member of the Seminole Nation, but the crimes were committed on the Muscogee Nation Reservation. He argued that the Muscogee Nation had jurisdiction instead of the State of Oklahoma. Even though he was a member of the Seminole Nation, the determination was made based on the location of the crimes.
While both misdemeanors and felonies can be tried in tribal court, many felonies that are listed in the Major Crimes Act will become federal cases. For certain crimes, there is a statute of limitations of 5 years. Once that has passed, the person cannot be charged for that crime again, either tribally or federally.
The McGirt decision was originally applied retroactively, so it affected crimes committed on tribal land by or against an Indian prior to the decision. However, on August 12, 2021, the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals ruled that McGirt is a new rule of criminal procedure and, therefore, does not apply to cases prior to the McGirt decision.
For people charged with crimes prior to the McGirt decision who have already applied for post-conviction relief under McGirt, this will likely mean additional delays. It is possible that some may still be granted relief since they applied before the OCCA changed the range of McGirt. It is also possible that the OCCA’s decision will be overturned.
In order for a defendant to be tried by the principles of McGirt, they must prove that it applies to them. They must meet three criteria. First, they must prove the crime was committed on tribal land. Second, they must prove that either they or the victim is a tribal member. Third, they must prove they or the victim has some quantum of Indian blood.
If you’re facing criminal charges in Oklahoma and you believe your case falls under McGirt, you need strong legal representation. If the alleged crime was committed on the Muscogee Nation Reservation and you or the victim are Indian, Jason Lile can represent you in tribal court.
Free Consultation with a Muscogee Nation Defense Attorney
No matter what charge you’re facing, a Muscogee Nation defense attorney can help you determine whether you qualify under McGirt. If you do, then you need representation from an experienced defense attorney who is licensed to practice in the Muscogee Nation.
Jason Lile has extensive experience in criminal defense, including cases handled in tribal court. He is familiar with the tribal justice system in the Muscogee Nation and acquainted with the judges and attorneys. For a free consultation, call (918) 947-6552 or fill out the form by clicking “request a consultation.”