Justices Take Up Murder Case Involving Tribal Land

(CN) – The Supreme Court agreed Monday to decide whether Oklahoma lacked jurisdiction to try a tribe member for murder based on 1866 territorial boundaries establishing a reservation in the eastern part of the state.

Patrick Dwayne Murphy, a member of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation, was convicted of murder and sentenced to death for killing George Jacobs in 1999.

Jacobs had previously been in a relationship with Patsy Jacobs, who Murphy was living with at the time, and Murphy decided he was “going to get” George Jacobs after the couple had an argument about him.

According to court records, Murphy slit Jacobs’ throat and cut off his genitals after chasing a vehicle Jacobs was riding in on Aug. 28, 1999. Jacobs’ body was found in a ditch on the side of the road.

A jury convicted Murphy of murder in Oklahoma state court and imposed the death penalty.

Murphy appealed, arguing he should have been tried in federal court because he is a member of a tribe and the crime occurred “in Indian country.”

The dispute centers on whether the Creek Reservation’s 1866 boundaries remain intact. Oklahoma argued that the reservation has been disestablished and cited various statutes that allotted land within the reservation.

The 10th Circuit sided with Murphy, ruling last August that the state courts lacked jurisdiction to try him because he is a member of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation and the crime happened inside an Indian reservation.

“The eight statutes [cited by the state] do not, individually or collectively, show that Congress disestablished the Creek Reservation,” the ruling states. “They lack any of the ‘hallmarks of diminishment,’ and what they do say supports the view of Mr. Murphy and the Creek Nation that the 1866 Reservation borders continue to exist. The state’s arguments about tribal title and governance miss the mark.”

The Denver-based appeals court vacated Murphy’s conviction and sentence, and denied Oklahoma’s request for an en banc rehearing in November.

The state then filed a petition for writ of certiorari with the U.S. Supreme Court, asking the justices to decide whether the 1866 Creek Reservation boundaries currently constitute an Indian reservation under federal law.

Oklahoma argued the 10th Circuit’s ruling “has already placed a cloud of doubt over thousands of existing criminal convictions and pending prosecutions.”

“All of this creates intolerable uncertainty for over 1.8 million Oklahomans who may now live on an Indian reservation, with all the civil, criminal, and regulatory consequences that could flow from that determination,” the petition states.

On Monday, the Supreme Court agreed to take up the case. Per its custom, it did not comment on the decision.

Justice Neil Gorsuch took no part in the consideration of the state’s petition because he was a member of the 10th Circuit when it heard the case, although he was not on the panel that issued the appeals court’s ruling.

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