Oklahoma Indian Territory question to be heard by Supreme Court, stemming from murder appeal

OKLAHOMA CITY - A case set to be heard by the U.S. Supreme Court could have implications for nearly half the state if a lower court's ruling overturning an American Indian man's murder conviction and death sentence is upheld, on claims he should have been tried in federal court.

On Monday, the Supreme Court said it will review a the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals ruling that overturned the murder conviction and death sentence for Patrick Dwayne Murphy, a Muscogee (Creek) Nation member. Murphy, 49, claimed that as a member of the Creek Nation, and that the crime occurred in Indian territory, he should have been tried in federal court.

A McIntosh jury found Murphy guilty in 1999 and he was sentenced to death. He has been on death row since.

Oklahoma Attorney General Mike Hunter petitioned the Supreme Court to take up the case, saying the appellate court's decision is one "that strikes at the core of Oklahoma’s identity and sovereignty" and that it "has already placed a cloud of doubt over thousands of existing criminal convictions and pending prosecutions."

The appellate court found last August that "Congress has not disestablished the Creek Reservation. Consequently, the crime in this case occurred in Indian country," and overturned Murphy's conviction, saying it should have been tried in federal court, as the reservation existed before Oklahoma statehood and was never officially deprived of its status by Congress.

The 1866 territorial boundaries of the Creek Nation in the former Indian Territory, prior to statehood, is comprised of millions of acres and most of the city of Tulsa. Hunter argued if the decision stands, the historical boundaries of the state's Five Civilized Tribes (Creeks, Cherokees, Choctaws, Chickasaws and Seminoles) would be put back in place, an area that is nearly the eastern half of the state, and then fall under federal jurisdiction. Hunter and others opposed to the decision also say it will have huge implications for state regulation, taxation and natural resources.

In March, the Department of Justice wrote the case "has wide-ranging and serious implications for law enforcement" and would "vastly increase the scope of federal jurisdiction over crimes involving Indians in eastern Oklahoma."

The DOJ argued that of three federal felony indictments brought in the Eastern District last year, under Indian country jurisdiction, the number could swell to more than 500 indictments, annually.

"Misdemeanor prosecutions would add even more to the caseload," the DOJ wrote. "The federal government lacks sufficient investigatory and prosecutorial resources in the area to handle that volume of cases."

In a statement Monday after the supreme court agreed to hear the case, Hunter said "Our team is looking forward to presenting our side and providing clarity for the state, tribal sovereigns and the 1.8 million Oklahomans who live in the area at issue."

"This is a unique case," said Casey Ross, a lawyer and American Indian law expert at Oklahoma City University, "Because it addresses an unanswered question in Oklahoma, for purposes Indian Country designations.”

Ross said while there would certainly be an anticipated impact if the ruling is upheld, she tamped down the idea that half of the state would fall under federal jurisdiction, or that normal judicial or governmental processes would be upended.

While the origins of the case stem from a convicted murderer on death row, the legal question at hand is whether the 1866 boundaries of the Creek Nation is considered an Indian Reservation today. And the possible answer now rests with the Supreme Court. Arguments are set for this fall with an opinion likely coming down before next summer.

"This case, right now, is about Creek Nation’s boundaries, not all the tribal reservation boundaries in the state of Oklahoma. Those will have to be analyzed on a case by case basis," she said, adding that the small case issue could have larger implications if the ruling is scaled to the rest of the tribes in the state.

"The legal arguments that are presented are really interesting. Particularly because Oklahoma’s Indian Country hasn’t been clearly defined or understood, even by Indian law scholars over the years."