OKLAHOMA CITY — The state’s highest criminal appeals court ruled Thursday that conviction appeals related to a recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling cannot be applied retroactively to undo a final conviction.
Saying it “cannot and will not ignore the disruptive and costly consequences that retroactive application of McGirt would now have,” the state Court of Criminal Appeals ruled that convicted murderer Clifton Merrill Parish was not eligible for post-conviction relief. He’d appealed his conviction on the grounds that the state lacked the jurisdiction to try him for murder under the Supreme Court’s McGirt decision.
Parish, who is an Indian and accused of committing the killing on Choctaw Reservation land, had been convicted in state court by a jury of second-degree murder in March 2012 and sentenced to 25 years in prison.
In the 4-0 opinion written by Judge David Lewis, the court found that McGirt and post-McGirt reservation rulings shall not apply retroactively.
Lewis wrote that the “costly consequences” of retroactive application of McGirt include “the trauma, expense and uncertainty awaiting victims and witnesses in federal re-trials; the outright release of many major crime offenders due to the impracticability of new prosecutions; and the incalculable loss to agencies and officers who have reasonably labored for decades to apprehend, prosecute, defend and punish those convicted of major crimes; all owing to a longstanding and widespread, but ultimately mistaken, understanding of law.”
The landmark McGirt ruling has left federal prosecutors scrambling to prevent the release of hundreds of inmates who have already had their state convictions overturned. Federal officials had estimated that as many as 4,000 cases could be appealed under last year’s Supreme Court ruling.
In the 5-4 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that large swaths of eastern Oklahoma — in particular the Muscogee (Creek) Nation lands — fall within Native American reservations.
Prosecutors said the ruling has altered criminal justice proceedings across eastern Oklahoma because crimes on reservation land involving defendants or victims who are tribal citizens must be prosecuted in federal or tribal courts. Those already convicted of crimes on Oklahoma’s reservation lands, meanwhile, are appealing their convictions and having them vacated on the grounds that the state of Oklahoma didn’t have the jurisdiction to prosecute them.
Oklahoma Attorney General John O’Connor called Thursday’s ruling “a significant victory” for the people of Oklahoma. He said thousands of cases would have had to be retried had the state lost the case. Many of the crimes were committed long ago. Witnesses may be gone, evidence lost and re-prosecution barred by statutes of limitation.
“This is a day where justice for some of the victims was restored,” O’Connor said. “We are all safer because a significant number of perpetrators will remain behind bars. Make no mistake, McGirt will continue to have disastrous effects throughout the state even despite this latest ruling.”
In a statement, Sara Hill, the Cherokee Nation attorney general, said the decision examined legal questions regarding the status of past criminal convictions and affirmed the legal status of the Cherokee Nation’s Reservation and that of the Choctaw and Chickasaw nations.
"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,” Hill said. “The Cherokee Nation will continue to work with federal, state and local law enforcement to do the same."
Gov. Kevin Stitt said the ruling was a “major win for victims of crime and public safety.”
“I am pleased that the court agreed that retroactively applying McGirt to tens of thousands of cases would unnecessarily traumatize victims and give dangerous criminals opportunities to fall through the cracks,” Stitt said.
He also said while the ruling is a “significant step forward,” McGirt still presents major challenges that “threaten the future of Oklahoma.
“I will continue to work to protect the state’s sovereignty and ensure equal protection under the law for all 4 million Oklahomans,” Stitt said.
Janelle Stecklein covers the Oklahoma Statehouse for CNHI's newspapers and websites. Reach her at email@example.com.