By Hannah Colton
A federal court has overturned a Muscogee Creek man’s death sentence in a major jurisdiction ruling. The ruling reaffirms the tribe’s historical reservation boundaries in Oklahoma.
The case goes back to 1999, when Patrick Murphy was accused of murdering another Muscogee man. He was convicted in Oklahoma court and put on death row in 2000. Since then, he’s unsuccessfully appealed multiple times.
Sarah Deer is a citizen of the Muscogee Creek Nation of Oklahoma and a former law professor. She says the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals ruling agrees with Murphy that the tribe and federal government, not the state, should have jurisdiction in his case.
“(Murphy) said, ‘I was within the Creek reservation when I committed this crime, and therefore the state of Oklahoma does not have the authority to prosecute me,’” Deer said.
The court’s acknowledgment of the reservation is significant because most of the tribal lands in Oklahoma today are no longer considered reservations. That’s because the federal government broke up the reservations in 1901 into individual allotments. Deer says at that point, lots of people started operating under the assumption that the Creek Reservation no longer existed.
“But in today’s understanding of what that requires, Congress had to both allot the land AND declare the reservation nonexistent,” she said. “They didn’t do part two, and that’s why the court concludes here that the reservation has never been demolished or even diminished in any way.”
Deer says it might seem odd to be cheering a decision that could release a murderer, but she’s celebrating the ruling that the Creek Nation maintains authority over their reservation land.
“There are a lot of question throughout the country about whether or not the reservation that was established in the 19th century still exists,” she said. “And this is only going to affect 10th Circuit, but it’s going to influence, I think, decisions about litigation across the country for Indian tribes.”
If the state of Oklahoma doesn’t appeal this week’s decision, a federal prosecutor could decide to re-try Patrick Murphy.