Apr. 2—A ruling from the United States Supreme Court is sending ripple effects through Stephens County as judges and prosecutors work their way through cases involving Native Americans that may see some convictions and charges reversed or prosecuted in federal court.
In a 5-4 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court previously ruled that large swaths of eastern Oklahoma — in particular, the Muscogee (Creek) Nation lands — fall within Native American reservations.
Prosecutors said the ruling has altered criminal justice proceedings across eastern Oklahoma because crimes on reservation land involving defendants or victims who are tribal citizens must be prosecuted in federal or tribal courts. Those already convicted of crimes on Oklahoma's reservation lands, meanwhile, are appealing their convictions and having them vacated on the grounds that the state of Oklahoma didn't have the jurisdiction to prosecute them.
The ruling includes the entirety of City of Duncan as well as other portions of Stephens County because of tribal land. The ruling, which came down just last year in October, is already showing effects in Stephens County as 10 of those cases fell under the lens of the court and prosecutors Thursday.
Five of those cases had all charges dropped and the people in them walked, including Robert Lee Yates, Junior James Chadwick Forlorn, Jeremiah Justin Ball, Timothy Willis Wade and Leon Montgomery Lakey, while five others had the state charges dropped but ultimately saw federal warrants issued and delivered to them by Stephens County Sheriff Wayne McKinney and other deputies in his department. Those receiving federal warrants included Jimmie JD Jennings, Ryan Everett O'Neal, Marquez LaShawn King, George Skit III and Lawrence Loftis Jr.
Stephens County District Attorney Jason Hicks said the decision, made in McGirt v. Oklahoma, "created the Creek Reservation, which stripped the State of Oklahoma jurisdiction over Indian defendants as well as Indian victims."
"So what that means is, if I have an Indian defendant or a case involving a non-Indian with an Indian victim, I don't have jurisdiction over those cases anymore," Hicks said. "The Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals extended that jurisdiction about a month ago in Bosse vs. State of Oklahoma and you are seeing the fallout from those decisions here today."
Hicks said of the multiple cases dismissed, they ranged anywhere from auto burglary "all the way up to and including child sexual abuse and the molestation of children."
"Those cases are very serious, and quite frankly, it troubles me, it troubles my staff to think that there are people walking out of this courtroom because the State of Oklahoma doesn't have jurisdiction and our ability to prosecute those people is gone and we're now relying on the United States Attorney's office, the federal government and/or the Chickasaw Nation and the Tribal authorities to pick those cases up and prosecute them," Hicks said.
After serving the county for 11 years as a District Attorney and spending nearly 20 years in the field, Hicks said this is the largest thing he's seen come down the pipe.
"It has absolutely changed the way we have to do business. My concern is when a crime is committed and we know we have an Indian defendant or a non-Indian defendant with an Indian victim, my concern is being able to get the authorities who have jurisdiction over that to prosecute those cases the way we would have, because we take it serious, we live here in this community, we love this community," Hicks said. "This community is important to us and keeping its citizens safe is the number one priority and we lost a lot of that control because of these decisions."
Hicks said the changes will bring down more changes for everyone involved in the system — law enforcement officers, prosecutors, prison officials, corrections officers, the court systems and more.
"Everybody involved in the system (is going to have) to make the adjustments to these particular cases and these new rules," Hicks said. "It's not fair. We have cases right now where there was a conviction entered against an offender. We have one in particular that is on appeal right now, we're waiting for the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals right now to hand down a decision on it, and I don't know for certain what they're going to do, I think I know what they're going to do, but if that case is reversed and sent back, it's very troubling to me and it will deeply trouble all of the members of the Stephens County community."
Sheriff McKinney said he also felt the decision could be one of the "most dangerous decisions that has come down since his 37 years in the law enforcement career."
"I've already seen other places where murderers have been released and the federal government does pick up some of them, but I'm not going to be naive enough to believe they pick up all of them," McKinney said. "There's going to be some that fall through the cracks. There's three here today that just has left me livid and three of these people — we're talking about child molesters, we're talking about pedophiles to children under six years old — they were waiting trial in our jail, walked free today and back on the streets amongst the people and amongst our children and it puts these people, your family, my family, all of these people at risk. They are out of jail today, free, free and clear of all those charges."
McKinney said one included a person who had failed to register as a sex offender but "we don't know if he has to register again, that's up to the Chickasaws."
Changes for McKinney's department include notifying the Chickasaws when a crime falls under their jurisdiction.
"The problem is, we've had to call them several times since this decision come down, and they have yet to make it here. The response times are bad. Now we are cross deputized, with the Chickasaws and have been since I've been sheriff, but that's usually on a mutual aid type thing," McKinney said. "Right now, this is anything that happens within the city limits of Duncan or within the confines of the territory within Stephens County if an Indian is involved one way or the other, whether it be a victim or whether it be a suspect. We first have to notify the tribal police and they can give us a go ahead, but we will have to file those charges or work that case under tribal law, not under state law, and none us know very much about the tribal law here. It's pretty new to the Chickasaws, that's within three or four months old, just made it. Our position is going to have to be, we have to get the tribal police here, they will have to come to the location and that's, I'm real concerned about the safety of our people, just because the mere response times for that, we're looking at an hour or two maybe getting an officer from the tribal police on the scene. Now my guys are going to be there and we're going to make sure nobody gets hurt, but we will be in a liable situation even doing that right now the way we understand it. We're hoping there may be some changes here at the end of the tunnel where we can work out a little better working situation for the people that we're supposed to protect but until then this is a sad day for the victims, especially for these small children right here."
DA Hicks said he's going to continue to work for the victims in these cases to make sure they're advocated for on the federal level.
"Again, I'm going to give the community all the reassurance in the world that we're going to continue doing everything we can to keep them safe. We're reaching out, we're trying to work with the Tribes, we're trying to work with the U.S. Attorney's office for those cases that fall into those gaps where we don't have jurisdiction any longer," Hicks said. "We are going to advocate on behalf of our citizens for those authorities to pick those cases up and prosecute them and not just prosecute them, but prosecute them to the full extent of the law, because we had some really bad people in this court room today that need to be in prison and they're not going to go to prison on the state's side. It's going to be up to the federal government to send a lot of these people to prison."
Hicks said in the beginning, he felt everybody in law enforcement and a lot of prosecutors were taken by surprise as the McGirt v. Oklahoma case was reversed by the United State Supreme Court and sent back to Oklahoma with directions to dismiss.
"Jimcy McGirt was a child molester and he made this claim that he was an Indian and that the crime occurred within the territorial boundaries of the Creek Reservation and the Supreme Court agreed and sent it back," Hicks said. "The thing about that, that I think is so problematic for all of us is, since statehood, for 120 years, we have operated under the banner and under the guides of the State of Oklahoma had jurisdiction to prosecute a crime within the territorial boundaries of the State of Oklahoma. Nobody really argued with that. We saw motions similar to this filed over the years but honestly, they were not really ever taken all that serious because everybody had operated this way since statehood and everybody understood that the State of Oklahoma had jurisdiction over its citizens and the decision of the United States Supreme Court has upset that and has fixed it so we no longer have jurisdiction over people who are members of a federally recognized Tribe and that's the key, somebody has to be a member of a federally recognized tribe before they're entitled to any relief."
Hicks said he's repeatedly taken the same question, "how do we fix this?" and the answer is that Oklahoma can't on its own.
"The State of Oklahoma cannot fix this. This is a fix that will have to come from the federal government which means Congress, the United States House and the United States Senate," Hicks said. "We have two U.S. Senators in Jim Inhofe and James Lankford and our U.S. House member is Tom Cole — those are the representatives who have the authority in congress to push and see if we can get federal legislation to fix this. I think one of the fixes to it is to allow the state and the tribe to have concurrent jurisdiction and I think we could work that out under certain circumstances. I've had some conversations with representatives from the tribe and I think we could work it all out if congress would give us the authority to go forward with the tribes and try to work that out."