Culture & the Family
Activists disrupt victims’ forum
July 14, 2021
A group of activists, apparently associated with tribal causes, disrupted a July 13 forum for victims of crime held in Tulsa. The activists, who comprised only a share of the total audience, repeatedly interrupted speakers, including by declaring law enforcement officials to be “trespassers” on Indian reservations that now comprise most of eastern Oklahoma.
The forum was focused on the impacts of the U.S. Supreme Court’s McGirt v. Oklahoma decision. The disruptions occurred even though district attorneys noted McGirt has caused many crimes committed against tribal citizens to go unprosecuted.
“We are living this every day in courtrooms across the state,” said Rogers County District Attorney Matt Ballard. “And I will tell you what is happening in every courthouse is that victims—Native victims—are being victimized, and nobody is prosecuting those cases.”
In McGirt v. Oklahoma, the U.S. Supreme Court found certain crimes involving American Indians on tribal land in Oklahoma must be prosecuted in federal, not state, court, because a 5-4 majority on the court ruled the reservation of the Muscogee Nation was never disestablished. The ruling has since led to similar declarations regarding the Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, and Seminole nations. The cumulative effect is that nearly half the state of Oklahoma, where 1.8 million people reside including the city of Tulsa, is now reservation land, creating a morass of jurisdictional challenges for law enforcement based on the tribal status of both criminals and victims.
As things stand today, the state cannot try crimes involving tribal citizens, while tribal courts have little jurisdiction over non-tribal citizens, leading to numerous crimes being tossed to federal courts. In addition, many individuals convicted of serious crimes must now be retried in federal court, and some are going free because the statute of limitations has expired or because original witnesses are now dead.
Earlier this month, the Federal Bureau of Investigations revealed that prior to McGirt the FBI “handled about 50 criminal cases a year involving Native Americans” in Oklahoma. Today, the FBI “manages thousands of cases,” including murders, rapes, and child sexual abuse.
“Now, we are the police for serious crimes involving Native Americans in half of the state,” said Melissa Godbold, special agent in charge of the FBI Oklahoma City Field Office.
The U.S. Department of Justice is seeking more money to support efforts in Oklahoma, including an additional $33 million for the state’s three U.S. Attorney’s offices, about $26 million more for the FBI, and nearly $9 million for the U.S. Marshals.
However, even with the massive growth of federal law enforcement in the state, district attorneys said the federal government is unable to investigate most crimes.
“They are racking those cases up to where they’re never going to be able to try them all,” said Wagoner County District Attorney Jack Thorp.
“The federal government is stepping in and taking over jurisdiction on these cases,” Ballard said. “The declination rate, the number of cases that are being declined, is approximately 95 percent.”
“There are people of Native heritage whose crimes against them go unaddressed,” said Seminole County District Attorney Paul Smith.
He said those cases “are not brought in federal court, they’re not brought in state court, they’re not brought in tribal court.”
“That’s what we would like to see changed,” Smith said. “More than anything, clarity and justice for all of those people.”
One protester yelled in response: “You’re exploiting the victim.”
Thorp said his office has partnered with the Cherokee Nation, helping to train tribal prosecutors, and has worked with the Muscogee Nation. But he said that does not negate McGirt’s consequences for crime victims.
“The problems with the McGirt decision are real,” Thorp said. “For years and years, many of us here have prosecuted some of the worst offenders here in the state of Oklahoma—those individuals that have murdered, raped, robbed our family members. And for everybody in this room: There are victims who are desperate to see that those individuals that raped, murdered, or robbed, that they continue … to face the prison sentences that they were given.”
During Thorp’s presentation, activists in the crowd yelled that law enforcement officials were “trespassers.”
Thorp noted the penalties facing many criminals will be much lower than in state court.
“The way the law is right now, the maximum punishment for an individual that is prosecuted in a tribal court is three years,” Thorp said.
“I vow to respect every interest of sovereignty that you have,” said Muskogee County District Attorney Orvil Loge. “I also have a duty to every person in Muskogee County. No matter where they live in my county, no matter their upbringing, I vow to protect them. And I know that right now I can’t.”
He suggested state-tribal compacts allowing for concurrent criminal jurisdiction would resolve many of the problems noted by officials, but that suggestion was met with a loud “no” from at least one audience member.
Cleveland County First Assistant Travis White noted the case of Shaun Michael Bosse, a non-Indian sentenced to death in state court for the murder of a Chickasaw mother, Katrina Griffin, and her two children in 2010. Bosse stabbed the mother and her eight-year-old son multiple times, and the body of the woman’s six-year-old daughter was found in a closet with a chair wedged to trap the girl in the burning home. Bosse is seeking a new trial due to McGirt.
In the Bosse case, White said Griffin’s family now must relive the trauma a second time.
Protesters in the crowd responded by shouting that the state was “acting outside of its jurisdiction.”
When Tulsa County District Attorney Steve Kunzweiler declared, “One thing we know for sure: We are all Oklahomans in this room,” he was met with vocal objections from some protesters.
The forum was organized by the office of Gov. Kevin Stitt, who is Cherokee and has said the fallout from the McGirt decision represents one of the state’s biggest challenges.
No tribal leaders participated in the July 13 forum. Critics alleged Stitt’s office did not invite them, but Carly Atchison, communications director for Stitt, posted on Twitter a copy of the email sent to tribal officials on June 3.
“The event will feature victims, advocacy groups, district attorneys, local law enforcement, tribal leaders, U.S. attorneys, and representatives from our congressional delegation, as well as the Governor, to come together to help answer the questions we hear from those who have been affected by the McGirt decision,” the email stated.
The email informed tribal officials that the forum would include “an opportunity for victims to get connected with advocacy groups and resources.”
“More details and a formal invitation will follow, but out of respect for all of your busy schedules, we wanted to ensure your Chiefs have ample heads up to reserve this date/time on your calendar,” the email continued. “Their participation will be key.”
Atchison said Stitt’s office received no response from tribal officials even though the governor’s office “followed up many times.”
Some tribal leaders instead issued statements regarding the forum.
Muscogee Nation Principal Chief David Hill described the forum as a “one-sided” political campaign that is “intended only to spread misinformation.” Hill said he received no “official invitation,” but also indicated he was aware Muscogee officials were welcome to participate.
“I hope our citizens respect my decision to not attend,” Hill wrote.
Hill said the McGirt ruling “has created so many opportunities for improved safety and security for all citizens of Oklahoma.”
A similar statement was issued by Cherokee Nation Principal Chief Chuck Hoskin, Jr.
Hoskin said that since the McGirt decision the Cherokee Nation “has prioritized expanding and reinforcing our justice system to provide support for victims and families, and to keep everyone on our reservation safe, while fully defending our sovereignty.” He went on to say that victims “deserve our full and unwavering support,” but blamed the chaos created by the McGirt ruling on “the state of Oklahoma’s decades of acting outside its jurisdiction.”
In a separate tweet, Hoskin also declared the McGirt ruling “is not a crisis to be solved but an opportunity to be seized.”