The Muscogee (Creek) Nation judicial and legislative building in Okmulgee, Oklahoma. Photo: Rdlogan05

Muscogee Nation citizen wins reversal of death penalty conviction in Oklahoma

A citizen of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation has secured a stunning court victory that not only reverses his death penalty conviction but also reaffirms the historic boundaries of his tribe's reservation.

In a lengthy yet unanimous decision, the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals on Tuesday said Patrick Dwayne Murphy should not have been prosecuted by the state of Oklahoma because his alleged crime occurred in Indian Country. A panel of three judges said it was clear that Congress never "disestablished" the Creek Reservation even though portions were parceled out during the allotment era.

"Because Mr. Murphy is an Indian and because the crime occurred in Indian Country, the federal court has exclusive jurisdiction. Oklahoma lacked jurisdiction," Judge Scott Matheson Jr., wrote at the conclusion of the 126-page opinion.

"The decision whether to prosecute Mr. Murphy in federal court rests with the United States," Matheson added. "Decisions about the borders of the Creek Reservation remain with Congress."

The ruling caps off an incredibly long journey for Murphy, who is accused of murdering George Jacobs, another Muscogee citizen, in 1999. He was convicted a year later but his attorneys raised numerous challenges to the proceedings, including whether the state could exercise jurisdiction based on the location of the crime.

The state courts rejected Murphy's contention about the status of the allotment where Jacobs was killed. But it took several more years for the case to make it to the federal system while his legal team pursued other grounds for reversal.

The lengthy proceedings eventually drew the interest of the Muscogee Nation, the Seminole Nation and the United Keetoowah Band of Cherokee Indians. While the tribes did not express a view on Murphy's innocence or guilt, they submitted briefs to the 10th Circuit and participated in oral arguments in March in hopes of preserving the status of the historic Creek Reservation.

"The Creek Nation has never been terminated," the Creek and Seminole tribes said in their joint brief to the court.

Patrick Dwayne Murphy is being held in the Oklahoma State Penitentiary in McAlester, according to the state's Department of Corrections. The 10th Circuit Court of Appeals on August 8, 2017, directed his 2000 conviction of first-degree murder, as well as his death penalty sentence, to be vacated due to lack of jurisdiction.

The tribal view was supported by the 10th Circuit as it went over, in great detail, the history of the reservation. In doing so, the judges turned to the U.S. Supreme Court, whose 2016 decision in Nebraska v. Parker reaffirmed the criteria used in diminishment cases.

The foremost factor is whether Congress used certain language or showed a specific intent to disestablish the reservation when it authorized allotments. The court looked at a series of laws -- including the one that established the infamous Dawes Commission -- and found that none of them supported the removal of the tribe's homelands from federal jurisdiction.

"Congress never expressly terminated the Creek Reservation in any of the statutes, nor did it use the kind of language recognized by the Supreme Court as evidencing disestablishment," Matheson wrote.

But even though the state failed at "the first and most important step" in the process, the court went ahead and looked at other factors described in Parker. Historical evidence from the time of allotment does not support diminishment and neither does "later history," Matheson concluded.

"The Creek Nation has maintained a significant and continuous presence within the Reservation," Matheson wrote.

While one federal law changed the parameters of the tribe's relationship with the federal government, the court noted that Congress reversed course with the Oklahoma Indian Welfare Act. The 1936 statute ushered in a new era of self-determination.

"In sum, following allotment, Congress re-empowered the Creek Nation’s government, which it had never dissolved," Matheson observed.

The detailed analysis reflects the fact-intensive nature of diminishment cases, which don't always go in favor of tribal interests. In February, the 10th Circuit ruled against the Eastern Shoshone Tribe and the Northern Arapaho Tribe and held that the Wind River Reservation in Wyoming was diminished by Congress.

The 10th Circuit went in a different direction when it came to the Ute Tribe, whose reservation borders have been repeatedly challenged by officials in Utah. The long-running battle was so striking that Judge Neil Gorsuch called it one of his most important cases during his Supreme Court confirmation proceedings earlier this year.

"Our history with Native Americans is not the prettiest history," Gorsuch said before he was confirmed to serve as a justice on the nation's highest court.

According to the Oklahoma Department of Corrections, Murphy is being held in the Oklahoma State Penitentiary in McAlester, which falls within Choctaw Nation territory. Now 48 years old, he's been imprisoned by the state for 18 years.

The 10th Circuit's decision directs a federal judge to grant Murphy's petition for habeas corpus. The court said his Oklahoma conviction and sentence should be vacated, or erased from the record.

The state could try to keep Murphy locked up if it intends to seek a rehearing or pursue an appeal to the Supreme Court. Or it could request a delay in proceedings while the federal government decides whether to prosecute him for the 1999 murder.

Turtle Talk has posted documents from the case, Murphy v. Royal.

10th Circuit Court of Appeals Decision:
Murphy v. Royal (August 8, 2017)

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