Oklahoma murder convictions reversed because of Indian reservation decision, more expected

Chris Casteel
Oklahoman
Arnold Howell

The Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals on Thursday reversed several more criminal convictions involving Native Americans — including three for first-degree murder and two for manslaughter — with two of the judges registering their continued displeasure with the U.S. Supreme Court ruling last year regarding the Muscogee (Creek) reservation.

Among those who whose state convictions were overturned were:

  • Christopher Jason Hathcoat, convicted of first-degree murder and given a life sentence  in McIntosh County for the killing of Terry Alan Wetselline.
  • Arnold Dean Howell, convicted of first-degree murder and given a sentence of life without parole in Creek County for killing Michael Mondier.
  • Jordan Batice Mitchell, convicted of first-degree murder and given a life sentence in Tulsa County for killing Christian Dehart.
  • Shannon James Kepler, a former Tulsa Police officer who is white and has Muscogee (Creek) heritage convicted of manslaughter and given a 15-year prison sentence for killing his daughter’s Black boyfriend, Jeremey Lake.

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All of the cases reversed on Thursday involved crimes by members of tribes within the boundaries of the Creek reservation.

Until last July, it was standard practice for the state to prosecute first-degree murder cases in all 77 counties regardless of whether a defendant was a member of a tribe.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled last year, in the case of convicted child rapist Jimcy McGirt, that the Creek reservation, which includes much of Tulsa County, was never officially disestablished by Congress. Because McGirt is a member of a tribe, and his crime was committed on the Creek reservation, McGirt should have been prosecuted in federal court, the Supreme Court ruled.

Last week, the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals extended the McGirt decision to the Cherokee and Chickasaw Nations. The court is expected soon to extend the decision to the Choctaw and Seminole Nations, meaning most of eastern Oklahoma will be Indian Country for the purpose of criminal jurisdiction. 

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Dozens more reversals in criminal cases are expected, and the federal government and tribes will become responsible for crimes involving members of tribes on the five reservations.

McGirt decision concerns pair of Oklahoma judges

The decisions handed down Thursday show the state appeals court has already adopted a standardized opinion format for reversing cases under McGirt. Most of the language in the opinions is the same except for the proper names.

Also part of every opinion released Thursday were the strong concerns of two of the court’s five judges, who wrote separately about the McGirt decision and its impact on the criminal justice system.

Judge Gary Lumpkin said he was compelled by duty to follow the Supreme Court’s ruling but that he did so reluctantly. He said the McGirt opinion “seems to be some form of ‘social justice’ created out of whole cloth rather than a continuation of the solid precedents the Court has established over the last 100 years or more.”

Judge Robert Hudson concurred with each reversal because of the Supreme Court ruling but wrote, “I maintain my previously expressed views on the significance of McGirt, its far-reaching impact on the criminal justice system in Oklahoma and the need for a practical solution by Congress.”

Hudson wrote extensively in an opinion last week about the McGirt decision and its impact, saying, "Crime victims and their families are left to run the gauntlet of the criminal justice system once again, this time in federal court. And the clock is running on whether the federal system can keep up with the large volume of new cases undoubtedly heading their way from state court."

The murder and manslaughter convictions reversed on Thursday were in addition to ones previously overturned because of the McGirt decision. Those include the convictions of two death row inmates, Patrick Murphy and Shaun Bosse.

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Oklahoma Attorney General Mike Hunter and the leaders of the Cherokee and Chickasaw Nations have urged Congress to pass legislation that would give tribes the authority to negotiate agreements, called compacts, with the state of Oklahoma allowing for shared jurisdiction over crimes.

Federal prosecutors are expected to file charges, when possible, against state inmates released because of the McGirt decision.

Acting U.S. Attorney Clint Johnson announced Thursday that a federal criminal complaint has been filed against Howell.

Referring to the reversals on Thursday, Hunter said, “Although we anticipate these individuals to still be held accountable for their crimes on the federal level, our hearts go out to the victims in these cases. They are the ones who are going to have to relive the trauma of another trial. That is why we continue to encourage Congress to pass federal legislation to allow us to compact with the tribes on criminal matters so we can share jurisdiction as we have in the past.”