Several hundred local criminal cases have now been dismissed due to the U.S. Supreme Court ruling of McGirt v. Oklahoma, and the Cherokee Nation and federal prosecutors are working to refile most of those in the 14-county reservation.
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled Oklahoma lacks jurisdiction over crimes on tribal reservations. If both the defendant and the victim are Native, federal authorities would have jurisdiction over felony cases, and tribes over misdemeanors.
Local officials say the state would have jurisdiction over cases wherein both the defendant and victim are non-Native, even if they take place on the “reservation.” State prosecutors do not have criminal jurisdiction over crimes involving Natives with the Chickasaw, Cherokee, and Muscogee (Creek) nations – and perhaps more.
District 27 District Attorney Jack Thorp said he’s mostly concerned about the "victim" cases — cases wherein the victim was injured, raped, or molested.
“The murder cases really concern me, obviously – cases where the victim’s family believed the case was resolved and that they were safe from the attacker. Those cases that were manslaughter convictions are very problematic, because the federal statute of limitations is five years,” said Thorp.
He added that in many cases, the statute of limitations has already expired, and charges cannot be refiled. In these situations, the convicted individual will be released back into society.
"The Cherokee Nation carefully prepared for the Supreme Court's McGirt decision, and is hard at work to ensure public safety and justice can continue now that the court acknowledged the state illegally exerted prosecutorial authority involving Natives on our lands for decades. We have refiled over 550 dismissed cases in Cherokee Nation District Court, and held our first initial appearance docket for many of these cases just this week," Cherokee Nation Attorney General Sara Hill said. "We remain committed to being good partners in Oklahoma and will continue to meet these new challenges. We also will continue to work with families and victims and our law enforcement partners to ensure safety for all citizens on the Cherokee Nation reservation and in Oklahoma.”
Cherokee Nation member Denise Grass was charged with first-degree murder for the 2019 death of Elvis Dray, whose burned body was found in his backyard in Cherokee County within the reservation of the Cherokee Nation. According to online court records, the case was dismissed on Monday, April 12.
The case was passed for a later date on April 5, but Thorp said the Court of Criminal Appeals had not issued its mandate by the time the case had passed. However, federal prosecutors now have a hold on her and she is currently in custody
“There was a belief that the Court of Criminal Appeals may grant to the state of Oklahoma and the Cherokee Nation a 60-day stay, to help the Cherokee Nation continue in its preparations,” said Thorp. “The court did not grant that stay, but did allow for a rehearing in the Bosse case. The Bosse case involves the Choctaw reservation.”
The Oklahoma appeals court on March 21 vacated Shaun Bosse’s convictions and death sentences for murdering three Chickasaw Nation citizens in the boundaries of that reservation. That makes the case fall under the jurisdiction of the federal courts. A hearing was set for April 14 in Ada.
Other cases, though, have involved crimes in Cherokee County.
Keia Marie Beaver was arrested in 2017 when she admitted to shooting Jeremy Wayne Faglie with a .22-caliber rifle at their Hulbert home. Beaver had been granted a release from jail with global positioning satellite monitoring and was to have no contact with the victim’s family or witnesses. She now has tribal criminal charges filed against her and is currently in custody on a Cherokee Nation warrant without bond.
Saiane Studie’s 2019 first-degree murder case was tossed out. Studie was charged in the stabbing death of her stepfather when she was 15 years old. According to online court reports, charges will be filed in federal court, as Studie was taken into federal custody on April 7. She has a hold placed on her by federal authorities.
James Mounce was charged with first-degree manslaughter for the 2019 shooting death of Timothy Ragsdale. Mounce claimed he feared for his life and thought Ragsdale was going to kill him.
Jeriah Budder, who was 18 at the time he allegedly shot and killed another man, was charged with first-degree manslaughter.
In an April 10 Tahlequah Daily Press Saturday Forum, readers were asked if they believed the McGirt decision would be good for Native tribes and society as a whole.
Todd Bennett said the decision strips justice from victims of crimes and will allow criminals to freely walk the streets.
“We are going to have crime victims who do not get justice because tribal courts are going to be inundated with cases they are either too busy to prosecute or don’t have the means to prosecute,” he said.
Michael Cummings said Congress needed to dissolve the reservations to ensure that tribal and federal jurisdiction is only on trust or fee restricted land.
“The tribal governments were dissolved before statehood and that should have dissolved the reservations as Congress invented,” he said. “All McGirt did was affirm that the land within the boundaries of the Creek Nation boundaries is Indian Country, as it pertains to the Major Crimes Act," he wrote. "All the state rulings relying on McGirt have affirmed that within boundaries of particular tribes is Indian Country as is pertains to the Major Criminal Act.”