Supreme Court justices debate Native American control of land in Oklahoma

Patrick Dwayne Murphy, Oklahoma Department of Corrections

WASHINGTON – The Supreme Court is debating whether an Indian tribe retains control over a vast swath of eastern Oklahoma in a case involving a Native American who was sentenced to death for murder.

Some justices fear a ruling for the Muscogee (Creek) Nation could have big consequences for criminal cases, but also tax and other regulatory issues on more than 3 million acres of Creek Nation territory, including most of Tulsa. That’s Oklahoma’s second largest city.

The issue is before the high court in the case of Patrick Murphy, who was convicted of killing a fellow tribe member in 1999. A federal appeals court threw out his conviction because it found the state lacked authority to prosecute Murphy. The appeals court ruled that the crime occurred in Indian country.

Oklahoma Attorney General Mike Hunter released the following statement after the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in the case:

“We appreciate the U.S. Supreme Court for agreeing to hear this case, giving us the opportunity to argue the state’s position in a case that has implications for millions of Oklahomans,” Attorney General Hunter said. “Our argument today was based on the clear fact that Congress disestablished the Muskogee (Creek) territory in 1907 to make way for Oklahoma statehood. Thus, the state has the ability to prosecute crimes like the one this case is centered around, and like it has been doing for over a hundred years.

Not to be lost in this case is whether a man who confessed to the brutal mutilation and murder of George Jacobs and was convicted in state court should be re-tried and receive a lesser sentence of life in prison, rather than the death penalty. We should never lose sight of the victims and their surviving loved ones in this case or any others that involve crimes of this nature—including Native American Oklahomans like the victim in this horrific crime. These are individuals who have suffered long enough while waiting for justice to be carried out and they stand to be re-victimized with a retrial and lesser sentence handed down.

I want to assure both tribal and non-tribal citizens, my office remains committed to maintaining the long-standing good relations between the state and tribes, no matter the final ruling. We share a range of common interests and because of our successful collaborations, we have contributed to progressing our state over the years in a variety of ways that can never be overlooked. My desire is to always uphold our history of amity.

Finally, I want to express my gratitude for the countless hours put into researching and preparing for today’s arguments by Solicitor General Mithun Mansinghani, his team and our outside attorney Lisa Blatt and her team. Our team performed exceptional legal work on behalf of the state of Oklahoma in front of the highest court in the land.”