A Murder -- and a Potential Major Re-Defining of Tribal Land Boundaries
~ Natalie S. Brown

ln 1999, a man murdered another man. As frequently as murders happen in the U.S., this would hardly be a topic of conversation 19 years later, were it not for the repercussions of the perpetrator's lawyer's last attempt to spare him the death penalty: a challenge to the State of Oklahoma's jurisdiction over the case, on the grounds that because the murder was committed on Indian land. This assertion, and the ramifications it would have on not only this case but on all of eastern Oklahoma, have made their way through the press and various levels of the courts, all the way up to the U.S. Supreme Court.

To understand the potential implications of Patrick Murphy murdering George Jacobs, we need to go back a bit further in history.   

Historically, the Muscogee people lived in what is now known as Georgia and Alabama. 

Andrew Jackson, a murderous president responsible for the death of thousands of Native Americans, established land for the Muscogee (Creek) Nation as part of the Indian Removal Act of 1830, the goal of which was to relocate all Indians west of the Mississippi River. This land is what is now know as eastern Oklahoma.  At the time, the Muscogee (Creek), Chickasaw, Choctaw, Seminole, and Cherokee were collectively referred to as the "Five Civilized Tribes" by some members of the U.S. government. All five of these Nations were allotted in Indian Territory, in modern day eastern Oklahoma.

In 1885, the U.S. Congress passed the Major Crimes Act, which means that only the federal government can prosecute the most serious crimes committed on Indian land.

In 1907, Oklahoma became a state.  Whereas in other parts of the United States, Congress officially terminated Indian land rights, this did not occur in Oklahoma. In fact, in 1906 Congress passed the Enabling Act, which continued tribal rights for the five Nations.

So, with that history in mind, let's flash forward a bit.

In 1999, Patrick Murphy, a member of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation, murdered and dismembered George Jacobs, another member of the MCN. Murphy was convicted of that murder in 2000, following an unsuccessful bid by his attorneys to convince the jury that he was too inebriated that night to be able to have had intent to kill, a necessary requirement for first degree murder.  An intellectual defect defense also failed to prevent Murphy from being sentenced to death.

In 2004, a new tactic was tried: upon discovering that the murder took place two miles from where it was originally cited as having occurred, a lawyer for Murphy realized that if the ground in question were indeed still Indian land, the State of Oklahoma would have no jurisdiction to try a first-degree murder case, nor to impose the death penalty. 

What began as a hail Mary pass in an attempt to save a client's life has now reached all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court and may overturn land ownership and governance for nearly half the state of Oklahoma, including Tulsa - an area of roughly 5,000 square miles. 

The land mass is home to approximately 1.8 million people, of whom, about 80,000 are members of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation. 

In 2004, Murphy's lawyers challenged the verdict on the basis of jurisdiction.  The Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals ruled against him, finding that the State of Oklahoma did have jurisdiction. 

However, in 2017, that decision was reversed by a higher court, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit, which ruled that the murder was committed on Indian land, and that therefore, only the federal government could have tried the case. Consequently, Murphy's death sentence was vacated and his name was removed from death row.

Predictably, the State of Oklahoma appealed. The U.S. Supreme Court agreed to take the case, and oral arguments were heard in November 2018.  In December, the Justices asked the attorneys for written responses to additional questions. The U.S. Supreme Court will announce its verdict some time in the first half of 2019.  Stay tuned!