Jul. 23—As state-prosecuted criminal cases continue to be dismissed due to the U.S. Supreme Court's McGirt v. Oklahoma ruling, law enforcement officials are expressing frustration, while tribal officials call the decision a victory for sovereignty.
Local officials say the state still has jurisdiction over cases wherein both the defendant and victim are non-Native, even if the crime takes place on the 14-county Cherokee Nation "reservation." State prosecutors do not have criminal jurisdiction over crimes involving Natives with the Chickasaw, Cherokee, and Muscogee nations, and by extension, other tribes as well.
The Cherokee Nation Attorney General's Office has filed or refiled more than 1,300 cases in the its District Court since January. Cherokee Nation Principal Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr. said the tribe has hired six additional prosecutors, 13 more deputy marshals, and doubled the number of victim advocates from five to 10.
"We are also opening a juvenile justice court in Muskogee and an additional court in Jay. We will continue to be proactive in our expansion of the Cherokee Nation criminal justice system and estimate this growth will cost the tribe an additional $35 million per year," Hoskin said.
Hoskin added that the McGirt decision means CN has the opportunity to build "the best criminal justice system in the U.S."
"Doing so requires proactive leadership, thoughtful discussion and a reliance on facts. Doing so means rejecting scare tactics designed to pit Indians against non-Indians and erode tribal sovereignty," he said.
While the historic ruling is deemed a win for tribal sovereignty, Cherokee County Sheriff Jason Chennault deems it a failure for victims.
"The only major problems we've run into in Cherokee County since the McGirt decision is our jail contract, and then a couple of cases that haven't been prosecuted," said Chennault.
The sheriff voiced exasperation recently over a homicide case apparently related to the disappearance of an 18-year-old man. Kiah John Pritchett was arrested on separate charges, but has been named the primary suspect in the case. Pritchett, a Cherokee Nation citizen, had been arrested May 5 for a shooting, but he was out of jail due to McGirt, and Chennault said this killing should have never happened. The victim's body was found burned.
"It's aggravating all the way around; we're aggravated, the jail is aggravated, the public is aggravated, the victims are aggravated, the federal prosecutors are aggravated, the CN prosecutors are aggravated. It has nothing to do with control for us, and it has everything to do with public safety," Chennault said.
While Hoskin agreed the McGirt ruling has led to challenges, he said the tribe is committed to collaborating with partners at the local, state, and federal levels to "address them without relying on fear tactics."
"Rising costs of criminal justice means that in the future, Cherokee leaders may need to make difficult budget decisions in order to meet all of our obligations and priorities from a finite pool of resources," said Hoskin. "Federal law also creates gaps in the justice system that must be addressed, including exclusive jurisdiction by the federal government over substantially all crimes where the offender is non-Indian, and strict federal limits on sentencing criminals in tribal courts."
District 27 District Attorney Jack Thorp, who has also conveyed his concerns for victims of violent crimes, said the ruling is bringing those cases back to square one.
"It's been a year since McGirt, and I want to commend the progress the CN has made in creating a prosecution organization. There are still significant issues that must be solved in order to protect the public. My hopes are that we can all work together to make our communities safer," said Thorp.
Hoskin said a high degree of cooperation is needed, as state, county, federal, and tribal agencies are operating in a way that "overlaps every minute of every day."
However, Chennault said CN has failed to cooperate when it comes to its jail contract with the Cherokee County Detention Center.
"The jail has a contact with Cherokee Nation, and the contract says that we house their prisoners and that they are responsible for transporting them to doctor's visits and to [tribal] court," he said. "That's the problem right now, and that's why there's so much fuss about our jail contract because Cherokee Nation isn't doing their part."
According to the Chennault, CCDC houses tribal offenders for a fee of $42 per inmate, per day. Chennault said CN isn't able to transport its prisoners to court or to doctor visits due to a lack of manpower.
"We had been doing that for them, and our transport officers are doing double duty," he said.
The CN AG's Office responded to the Daily Press' request for comment, saying CN is paying CCDC to transport tribal inmates for medical purposes, even though the contract does not require that.
"Meanwhile, although most of the court hearings held require no transportation and are instead completed over the phone, the tribe also pays the county an hourly rate for officer transport," the CN AG statement said.
Chennault said it's the CN AG's Office that is hesitant to speak with him or CCDC Jail Administrator T.J. Girdner about the issue.
"They want to go through our lawyer, who is Chad Moody out of Tulsa. We've wanted to sit down and speak with them about them not upholding their part of the contract and they have not done that," he said.
CN AG's Office staffers said they called Moody to schedule a follow-up and in-person meeting, but received no response. They said their representatives were at the Governmental Building Authority this week and exchanged direct introductions with Girdner. They added there have been opportunities for Girdner to raise any issues he may have.
Chennault confirmed representatives showed up at the meeting, but there was no item on the agenda to discuss such matters.
The CN AG's Office said it has proposed a new standard jail contract to provide for a higher rate to cover additional costs incurred by the CCDC, but the jail authority — the GBA — has not responded to the request to renegotiate the current contract.