Two years after the United States Supreme Court ruled tribes in eastern Oklahoma were never disestablished at statehood, the court is giving some prosecuting power back to the state.
In a 5-4 ruling, The Supreme Court decided the state of Oklahoma can prosecute people who are not tribal citizens for crimes committed on tribal land when the victim is Native American. It's a big change in how District Attorney Steve Kunzweiler's office will be able to prosecute crimes in Tulsa County.
"It's a big victory for the state of Oklahoma,” said Kunzweiler. “We've held that since 1907, we have jurisdiction over all crimes within our borders."
On Wednesday, in Oklahoma vs. Castro-Huerta, means thousands of previous cases referred to the federal government after 2020 will now fall back under the state's jurisdiction. Victor Castro-Huerta was convicted by a Tulsa County jury in 2015 for severely neglecting his disabled stepdaughter and sentenced to 35 years in state prison
Assistant DA Kevin Gray prosecuted the case.
"Law enforcement was in tears when they walked into that house and saw the conditions that child was living in," said Gray.
But after the McGirt ruling, Castro-Huerta appealed, pled guilty in federal court, and took a 7-year sentence, a 28-year reduction.
"I think at this point now, the instructions will be to the court of criminal appeals that their vacation of his sentence was inappropriate,” said Gray. “His sentence, his judgment and sentence will stand and I anticipate he'll go back to penitentiary in Oklahoma."
Gray and Kunzweiler say they'll go back and look at similar cases now just like this in Tulsa County.
Tribal leaders though disagree with Wednesday’s ruling.
"It’s disappointing because this decision is at odds with years, decades really of precedence," said Cherokee Nation Principal Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr.
"Today does change a key aspect of McGirt but it doesn't change what's fundamental in this country. Which is that this country has a promise that it needs to keep to tribes."
The Muscogee Nation agrees to say it's an alarming step backward for justice and released this statement.
The U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling today in Castro-Huerta v Oklahoma is an alarming step backward for justice on our reservation in cases where non-Native criminals commit crimes against Native people. It hands jurisdictional responsibility in these cases to the State, which during its long, pre-McGirt, history of illegal jurisdiction on our reservation, routinely failed to deliver justice for Native victims.
While we hope for the best, we are not optimistic that the quality of effort from the State of Oklahoma will be any better than before.
Today’s ruling also purports to expand the State of Oklahoma’s authority on reservation lands to unprecedented levels to include concurrent jurisdiction on trust and restricted lands. This will have a ripple effect throughout Indian Country across the United States.
Tribal governments in collaboration with the federal government are best suited to protect our people and administer justice on our reservations. Public safety would be better served by expanding Tribal authority to prosecute any crime committed by any offender within our reservation boundaries rather than empowering entities that have demonstrated a lack of commitment to public safety on Indian lands.
We look forward to collaborating with Members of Congress and the federal government to identify all options available to empower Tribal governments to ensure the safety and prosperity of all who reside, work or visit our reservation. This is a pivotal moment for all tribal nations.