An issue stretching back to the very start of Oklahoma more than a century ago recently got a Garvin County touch.
A judge’s decision here represents only a small step in deciding who has the legal jurisdiction for many cases – the state of Oklahoma or Native American tribes.
Triggering the questions is the McClain County case of Shaun Bosse, who was convicted of murdering a woman and her two young children a decade ago.
Bosse, now on death row, is challenging the state’s legal right to prosecute and convict him because the three victims were recognized as Native American.
His argument is also based on the claim the crimes occurred on Indian lands because no formal action was taken by the U.S. Congress to dissolve reservations dating back to the 19th century.
The very prosecutor in Bosse’s case, Greg Mashburn, who is the district attorney for the area that includes both McClain and Garvin counties, knows all too well what kind of legal chaos can come from this situation if it stands.
“This is the worst case we could have imagined,” Mashburn tells the PV Democrat.
“It undoes what the tribes and state have done since the state of Oklahoma was formed. It puts thousands of convictions at risk and prevents law enforcement from keeping the peace.”
Mashburn was also there representing the state during a recent court hearing overseen by District Judge Leah Edwards, who serves in both Garvin County and neighboring McClain County.
Edwards was tasked with considering two “narrow” questions related to Bosse’s claim the state didn’t have the legal right to prosecute him in his murder trial all those years ago.
The issue has already been heard by the U.S. Supreme Court, which in McGirt v. Oklahoma basically agreed with Bosse’s claim.
It found its way to the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals as state officials, including Attorney General Mike Hunter, were seeking guidance on how the ruling impacts cases already on the books or the state’s jurisdiction when it comes to law enforcement and the prosecution of criminal cases.
From there it was sent back to the district level leading to the recent hearing in Purcell as evidence was presented to Edwards.
One issue for the judge was whether or not the three victims killed by Bosse are considered Native American.
Another is whether the crime occurred within the “reservation,” or boundaries of the Chickasaw Nation, leaving the state no jurisdiction to prosecute Bosse’s murder case.
There was really no question about the victims’ status as Katrina Griffin and her two children, Christian Griffin and Chasity Hammer, were considered “Indian victims.”
Edwards also ruled “there is absolutely no evidence before the court that these treaties have been formally nullified or modified an any way to reduce or cede the Chickasaw lands to the United States or to any other state or territory.”
As a result, documents show the judge ruled that Congress established a reservation for the Chickasaw Nation and it never “specifically erased those boundaries and disestablished the reservation.”
“Therefore, the crime occurred in Indian Country.”
Mashburn says “unfortunately” there are no documents to show the tribal lands in Oklahoma were ever legally turned over to the state.
“Congress didn’t make that formal. The irony is they used the tribes’ input in forming our state 100 plus years ago,” he said.
“What it means now is two-thirds of the state of Oklahoma is not the state of Oklahoma but lands belonging to the tribes.”
As a prosecutor Mashburn says the alarming thing about this situation is it could lead to criminal defendants already sentenced, including those like Bosse facing murder convictions and the death penalty, could ask for new trials at the federal level or even be released altogether.
“Unless the feds pick it up he’ll get a brand new trial,” Mashburn said about Bosse. “All of this could mean a serial killer benefits from the people he chose to kill.
“There are several thousand cases like this still pending. Defendants can keep this in their hip pocket. They can go through the state system and if they don’t like what they get they can pull out the Indian card.
“There are defendants already convicted waiting for the statute of limitations to expire so they can pull this out of the hip pocket.”
He says it could even extend to defendants pursuing civil lawsuits and challenging things like traffic fines.
For now it appears to only be the beginning as Mashburn says FBI agents and federal judges have already been brought in to deal with things like simple speeding tickets and domestic situations normally done by local police or sheriff’s deputies.
According to Mashburn, the hope is Congress will step in and pass a law allowing the state and tribes to share jurisdiction.