McGirt v. Oklahoma
A U.S. Marshals way station from the 1890s still stands in McAlester, Oklahoma. The jail was used to hold outlaws captured in Indian Territory before transportation to the federal court in Fort Smith, Ark., during pre-statehood, when all criminal offenses fell under federal jurisdiction. The McGirt decision has expanded the role of federal law authorities in eastern Oklahoma to a level unseen since territorial days. (Michael Duncan)

Oklahoma Attorney General John O’Connor, who was appointed by Gov. Kevin Stitt in July, has made it clear that one of his top priorities is to limit or completely roll back the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark decision in McGirt v. Oklahoma, despite opposition from tribal citizens and officials.

This post is a part of the Oklahoma Media Center’s Promised Land effort, which shows how the landmark McGirt v. Oklahoma decision will affect both tribal and non-Indigenous residents in the state.

The July 2020 ruling affirmed the Muscogee Nation as an Indian Country reservation as defined under 18 U.S.C. 1151a. Subsequent decisions from the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals have said the ruling also applies to the Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw and Seminole nations.

The McGirt ruling states that only a tribe and the federal government — not the state — have jurisdiction to prosecute Major Crimes Act violations involving Native Americans that occur on reservation land. The ruling, which has complex ramifications, has sparked debate between state and tribal officials regarding tribal sovereignty and criminal jurisdiction.

Over the short time he has been in office, O’Connor has been adamant about opposing the ruling. The collection of stories below offers a recap of O’Connor’s court challenges and other reservation-related news from recent weeks.

To keep up with this complicated and rapidly developing topic, we encourage readers to bookmark our Promised Land reporting archive. Additionally, we encourage readers to check out our continuing coverage of the upcoming Muscogee Nation primary election, which takes place Saturday, Sept. 18.

The excerpts below feature the first few paragraphs of pieces published between Aug. 6 and Sept. 16 in various Oklahoma publications. In some instances, the excerpts have been edited lightly for timeliness and clarity.

Man could go free after court overturns manslaughter conviction on McGirt claim

By Curtis Killman
The Tulsa World
Sept. 16, 2021

In a decision that may pave the way for a man’s freedom, an obviously reluctant state appellate court overturned the conviction and 19-year prison sentence of a Wagoner man, who was found guilty earlier in the 2013 traffic death of an 11-year-old boy.

Citing the Supreme Court’s McGirt ruling, the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals on Thursday once again rejected the state’s concurrent jurisdiction claim in reversing and remanding the case of Richard Ray Roth back to the district court with instructions his case be dismissed.

A Wagoner District Court jury found Roth, 42, guilty in October 2014 of first-degree manslaughter and leaving the scene of an accident in the November 2013 traffic death of Billy Jack Chuculate Lord.

Read more about the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals’ opinion here.

(Editor’s note: Roth is not a tribal citizen, while Chuculate Lord is a Cherokee Nation citizen. The crime occurred on the Muscogee Reservation.)

New Oklahoma AG John O’Connor talks McGirt, ABA rating and state’s top legal issues

By Carmen Forman
The Oklahoman
Sept. 5, 2021

In the weeks since Tulsa attorney John O’Connor was named Oklahoma’s chief law enforcement officer, he has defended a state law that largely prohibits school mask mandates and asked the nation’s high court to reverse landmark decisions on tribal sovereignty and abortion rights.

Oklahoma’s new Republican attorney general is finding his footing in public office as the state is embroiled in a number of complex and politically charged legal issues.

And he’s doing so while also looking ahead to next year’s competitive attorney general’s election.

In a 45-minute interview with The Oklahoman, O’Connor discussed his plans to tackle what he sees as the state’s most pressing legal issues and his decision to run for a full, four-year term as attorney general.

Read more about O’Connor’s efforts to have the McGirt vs. Oklahoma ruling overturned.

Cherokee chief says governor’s challenge of McGirt ruling will be met with ‘determined opposition’ during State of the Nation address

By Sheila Stogsdill
The Tulsa World
Sep. 5, 2021

TAHLEQUAH — The COVID pandemic once again prompted Cherokee Nation Principal Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr. to deliver his State of the Nation address virtually on Saturday.

This year’s 69th annual Cherokee Nation holiday — Cultivating our Culture: Language. Literacy. Lifeways — featured both virtual and in-person events. It also honors the 200th anniversary of Sequoyah’s Cherokee syllabary.

Cherokee Nation faced many challenges this past year, the two challenges that drew the most publicity were COVID and the U.S. Supreme Court decision known as the “McGirt decision.”

“What Oklahoma had 113 years to do, we are doing in a matter of months,” Hoskin said, referring to the aftermath of the McGirt decision.

Read more about Hoskin Jr’s remarks during the State of the Nation address.

Oklahoma AG O’Connor withdraws main challenge to McGirt decision

By Chris Casteel
The Oklahoman
Sep. 4, 2021

Oklahoma Attorney General John O’Connor on Friday, Sep. 3, withdrew the state’s main challenge to the Supreme Court ruling recognizing the Muscogee (Creek) reservation, as the stack of complex legal cases stemming from the 2020 decision headed for a reshuffling.

In a brief motion, the state told the U.S. Supreme Court it was dismissing its appeal regarding Shaun Michael Bosse, an Oklahoma death row inmate whose case has been a primary focus in the wake of the McGirt v. Oklahoma decision.

The Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals in March applied the McGirt decision and reversed Bosse’s convictions of killing Katrina Griffin and her two young children, ruling that the state didn’t have jurisdiction because the victims were Chickasaw and the crimes occurred on the Chickasaw Reservation.

Under federal law, crimes involving Native Americans on reservations must be prosecuted by federal or tribal courts.

The Oklahoma Attorney General’s Office sought review from the U.S. Supreme Court in the Bosse case, arguing that the state shared jurisdiction because Bosse is not a Native American. The state also said Bosse shouldn’t have been able to appeal his convictions based on the McGirt ruling because he hadn’t challenged the state’s jurisdiction in his first round of appeals.

Read more about O’Connor’s withdrawal of his appeal and the OCCA’s ruling that the McGirt v. Oklahoma SCOTUS decision was not retroactive.

Man at center of McGirt landmark legal case sentenced to 3 life sentences

By Curtis Killman
The Tulsa World
Aug 26, 2021

MUSKOGEE — A judge on Wednesday, Aug. 25, sentenced a defiant Jimcy McGirt, whose landmark case rewired the legal system in much of Oklahoma, to serve three federal life sentences for his three child sex abuse convictions.
U.S. District Judge John F. Heil III, while upholding the prosecution’s request for a longer sentence than recommended by federal guidelines, ordered McGirt, 72, to serve the life terms concurrently, meaning at the same time.
“This court in good conscience cannot subject the public to the defendant’s predatory ways,” Heil said before sentencing McGirt.
McGirt was sentenced after a federal jury on Nov. 6 found him guilty of three felonies related to the sex abuse of a 4-year-old in 1996 following a three-day trial in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Oklahoma.

McGirt decision not retroactive, appeals court rules

By Chris Casteel
The Oklahoman
Aug 12, 2021

The Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals on Thursday, Aug. 12, ruled that the U.S. Supreme Court decision last year in the McGirt case that reshaped criminal jurisdiction in eastern Oklahoma was not retroactive, narrowing the number of Oklahoma convictions likely to be overturned in cases involving Native Americans.

“New rules of criminal procedure generally apply to cases pending on direct appeal when the rule is announced, with no exception for cases where the rule is a clear break with past law,” the court said. “But new rules generally do not apply retroactively to convictions that are final, with a few narrow exceptions.”

The court said applying new procedural rules to convictions previously upheld on appeal “invites burdensome litigation and potential reversals unrelated to accurate verdicts, undermining the deterrent effect of the criminal law.”

Read more about the OCCA’s ruling that the McGirt vs. Oklahoma SCOTUS ruling was not retroactive.