Choctaw, Seminole reservations recognized by Oklahoma appeals court
The Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals ruled Thursday that the Choctaw Nation and Seminole Nation reservations were never disestablished, completing the process of shifting criminal jurisdiction in most of eastern Oklahoma to the federal government and the Five Tribes in cases involving Indians.
The appeals court overturned murder convictions from state district courts in Seminole and Pittsburg counties, ruling that the defendants should have been tried by the federal government because they are Indians and the crimes were committed on the Choctaw and Seminole reservations.
“The Choctaw Nation has been preparing for the shift in criminal case jurisdiction for well over two years,” Chief Gary Batton said Thursday.
“I am grateful for the work of our Public Safety Department, Tribal Prosecutor’s Office, our Judicial branch, and the Sovereignty for Strong Communities Commission to protect public safety and to offer individuals a fair and efficient trial.”
The rulings followed the U.S. Supreme Court decision last July that the Muscogee (Creek) Nation reservation was never officially disestablished by Congress and that the state of Oklahoma did not have jurisdiction on the reservation to prosecute convicted child rapist Jimcy McGirt, an Indian.
The McGirt decision was widely expected to apply to the other four members of the Five Tribes because of their shared history; all were forcibly removed to Indian Territory in the 1830s and given reservations that comprised most of what is now eastern Oklahoma.
Since the McGirt decision, district courts in Oklahoma have made similar findings regarding the other four reservations and ruled that they were never disestablished before statehood in 1907. And the Court of Criminal Appeals has now affirmed decisions recognizing the Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw and Seminole reservations.
Oklahoma Attorney General Mike Hunter said, “Given the court’s position on the other reservation cases before them, this outcome was anticipated.
“Now that it has been determined the tribal boundaries of all Five Tribes were never disestablished, we need Congress to pass legislation to allow us to compact on criminal matters. We need it for Oklahomans, both Native American and non-Native American.
“Victims of crimes continue to pay the price every day because of the ramifications of the McGirt decision. State law enforcement officials continue to express frustration about their inability to hold criminals accountable. We are facing a situation that will not resolve itself."
The Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma, based in Durant, includes all or part of 13 counties. The Seminole Nation of Oklahoma, based in Wewoka, includes most of Seminole County.
Tribes and U.S. attorneys in Tulsa, Muskogee and Oklahoma City have filed federal charges against many of the state inmates whose convictions were overturned, along with defendants in crimes committed after the McGirt ruling.
The Choctaw Nation is prepared to file more than 125 cases in its district court because of the ruling Thursday, tribal officials said.
Under federal law, the federal government handles most of the major crimes, while tribal courts focus primarily on misdemeanors.
“Our coordination with the State of Oklahoma, District Attorney Offices within our reservation, and our Choctaw Nation Department of Public Safety should prevent any currently incarcerated individual from being released based solely on a McGirt jurisdictional claim,” said Kara Bacon, Tribal Prosecutor for the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma.
The latest rulings
The Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals formally recognized the Choctaw reservation in the case of Devin Sizemore, who is serving a sentence of life without parole for drowning his 21-month-old daughter, Emily, in 2016 in Krebs.
The court affirmed a district court ruling that Sizemore is a member of the Choctaw Nation and that the crime was committed on the Choctaw reservation, giving the federal government criminal jurisdiction under the Major Crimes Act.
The appeals court recognized the Seminole reservation in the case of Kadetrix Devon Grayson, serving two consecutive life sentences for killing Summer Gokey and Joseph Bounds in 2015 in Seminole County.
The court affirmed a district court ruling that Grayson is a member of the Seminole Nation and the murders were committed on the Seminole reservation, giving the federal government criminal jurisdiction under the Major Crimes Act.
All five judges on the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals concurred that they were bound by the McGirt decision to overturn the cases, though two continued to express their displeasure with the high court's decision and its impact.
The mandates overturning the convictions in the two cases will go into effect in 20 days.
In addition to the Choctaw and Seminole cases, the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals on Thursday issued opinions vacating sentences in several other case related to McGirt.
Among those were:
• Michael Eugene Spears, who is serving a life sentence for killing Mark McKinney with a sword in 2017 in Rogers County. Spears is a member of the Cherokee Nation and the crime was committed on the Cherokee reservation.
• Joseph Stanley Harjo, who is serving a life sentence for child sexual abuse in 2016 in Muskogee County; Harjo is a member of the Creek Nation and the crime was committed on the Creek reservation.
• Nacole Ryan Bain, who is serving a life sentence for first degree murder in the killing of horse trainer and barrel racer Addison Waddell in 2018 in Okmulgee County. Bain is a member of the Creek Nation and the crime was committed on the Creek reservation.
• Ryan Cortlan Johnson, who is serving a life sentence for first degree murder in the killing of Destiny Arnold in 2017 in Okmulgee County in 2017; Johnson is a member of the Chickasaw Nation and the crime was committed on the Creek reservation.