Thanks to a U.S. Supreme Court ruling this past July, certain Native Americans in Oklahoma may be able to have their state court convictions overturned and be released from custody.
[UPDATE: The rulings have been expanded to also include the Chickasaw Nation (Bosse vs. OKC) and the Cherokee Nation (Hogden vs. OKC).]
When Timmy McGirt, a Native American, was charged and convicted of a major crime in Oklahoma, his lawyers knew they had very few options to succeed on appeal.
The defense they eventually decided on would change the course of history: they argued that the State of Oklahoma could not prosecute McGirt because he was a Native American and the crime occurred within the historic boundaries of a tribal reservation.
Attorneys for the state dismissed this claim as ridiculous, but the history and the law proved to be more complex.
In the 1800s, the U.S. government forced many Native American tribes from their ancestral homes during the barbaric Indian Removal, relocating them to new lands. Through treaties, the tribes were promised the right to these new lands through the creation of Indian reservations. This collection of reservations became known as Indian Territory.
Following statehood in 1907, it was assumed these reservations in Indian Territory ceased to exist. Over a century later, this assumption proved to be very wrong.
In the McGirt case, the Supreme Court determined that the historic Muscogee (Creek) Reservation still exists because Congress never dissolved it.
The ruling read:
“On the far end of the Trail of Tears was a promise. Forced to leave their ancestral lands in Georgia and Alabama, the Creek Nation received assurances that their new lands in the West would be secure forever.”
Because the reservation still exists, the Supreme Court overturned McGirt’s state court conviction.
So what does this mean?
Understandably, this ruling has left many people wondering about the impact of this historic decision.
But the answer is really quite simple.
If a Native American (either a tribal member or someone eligible to be a tribal member) was convicted in state court of a crime that occurred within the historic boundaries of a tribal reservation, they may now be eligible to have that conviction overturned. For incarcerated persons, this could mean release from prison.
State courts have no jurisdiction to prosecute Native Americans accused of crimes committed on Indian reservations. Instead, that job falls on the federal government or the tribes themselves.
In short, if you or a loved one are a tribal member and have been convicted of a crime in the state of Oklahoma, you could be eligible to have your conviction vacated and be released from jail.
Find out if you are eligible:
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