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Court: 'McGirt v. Oklahoma' Ruling Applies Only Going Forward, Not Retroactively

Bill Oxford / Unsplash

Editor's Note: This story has been updated to reflect Choctaw Nation's statement about the ruling

On Thursday, the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals ruled last summer's U.S. Supreme Court McGirt v. Oklahoma decision will remain the law of the land, but it will only apply going forward when it comes to criminal cases.

District Attorney Mark Matloff appealed an April ruling by Pushmataha County Judge Jana Wallace that granted post-conviction relief to Clifton Parrish. Parrish, who is Choctaw, was convicted in 2012 of second degree murder for the beating of Robert Strickland. The crime took place within the Choctaw Nation's reservation boundaries, which made the case eligible for post-conviction relief under the McGirt ruling. The Major Crime Act applies to cases when a Native American is involved in a felony on reservation land.

The OCCA cited the United States v. Cuch ruling in 1996 as a precedent in the case. The 10th Circuit wrestled with retroactive applications for jurisdictional challenges. Cuch involved two individuals convicted in federal district court of federal crimes committed on land in eastern Utah that was determined to be part of the Ute Indian Tribe's Uintah Reservation. The Supreme Court later tossed the convictions.

As Stephen Greetham, the Chickasaw Nation's senior council explains, Thursday's ruling has major implications for the Shaun Bosse case and the state's petition to the Supreme Court asking to overturn the McGirt decision.

"This ruling moots the state's effort to go back to the Supreme Court," said Greetham.

Bosse was convicted in 2012 of murdering Chickasaw citizen Katrina Griffin and her two children. He filed for post-conviction relief, which was granted in March of this year. The case was then scheduled to be retried by the federal government. That was halted when the state asked for and was granted a stay in the case.

"This should bring relief and a speedy conclusion of matters for the family of his victims, for which we are deeply grateful," said Greetham.

He said the state now has an obligation to withdraw the petition it filed last week so that the OCCA can reinstate Bosse's conviction and sentence.

The court's ruling reverses the earlier vacation of Bosse's murder conviction, and he will now remain in state custody, but Thursday's ruling doesn't affect the reservation status of the Oklahoma tribes impacted by the McGirt ruling, despite the fact that they were affirmed under post-conviction relief that would not be granted under today's ruling.

Cherokee Nation Attorney General Sara Hill said as much in a prepared statement.

"Today's OCCA decision examines legal questions regarding the status of past criminal convictions, and has affirmed the legal status of the Cherokee Nation's Reservation, and that of the Choctaw Nation and Chickasaw Nation," she wrote.

Last week, Oklahoma's newly appointed Attorney General John O’Connor filed a petition asking the nation's highest court to overturn McGirt, saying that it was "a disaster for the state."

Hill said the state's courts were doing their jobs when handling the complexity of the McGirt decision as it applies to past and future cases.

"As Oklahoma's governor rushes forward in an attempt to convince the Supreme Court to reverse last year's decision and break treaties and promises, Oklahoma's courts continue to work through the legal issues as they arise."

Gov. Kevin Stitt and AG O'Connor put out a statement saying they were pleased with Thursday's ruling, but continue to maintain that the McGirt ruling is a disastrous decision that puts Oklahomans at risk.

The ruling was 4-0 to reverse Judge Wallace's decision.

“The state court’s faulty jurisdiction (unnoticed until many years later) did not affect the procedural protections Mr. Parish was afforded at trial,” the court wrote.

Statements from the other two major tribal nations -- Seminole and Muscogee Nation -- were not available.

U.S. Attorneys for the Western, Eastern and Northern Districts of Oklahoma released a joint statement on the ruling, saying they’re reviewing the ruling and its impacts.

“In the interim, our offices will continue to focus on our mission of ensuring public safety and holding defendants accountable for their criminal acts,” the statement read.

A day after the ruling, Choctaw Nation issued this statement:

“The U.S. Supreme Court ruling in McGirt was an important defense of tribal sovereignty and a reminder the federal government must honor its treaties. As we have said from the start – and as today’s ruling confirms – it did not mean convicted criminals would immediately be released, as some have claimed. All Five Tribes wrote in support of this decision, and we are pleased by the ruling. Most importantly, this is a positive result for the victims of crimes and their families, because in many cases it means they will avoid being re-victimized by new trials. We remain committed to prosecuting people who commit crimes on Indian land.”

Allison Herrera is a radio and print journalist who's worked for PRX's The World, Colorado Public Radio as the climate and environment editor and as a freelance reporter for High Country News’ Indigenous Affairs desk.
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