US Attorney, Tulsa County DA Both Cite Supreme Court McGirt Ruling In Separate Murder Cases

Jul 13, 2020

Tulsa County District Attorney Steve Kunzweiler and United States Attorney for the Northern District of Oklahoma Trent Shores both cited the recent Supreme Court ruling in McGirt v. Oklahoma in announcing action in two separate cases, some of the first legal maneuvers navigating what Shores' office calls their "new responsibilities."

According to a criminal complaint filed in the US District Court for the Northern District of Oklahoma on Monday, James Michael Landry, 29, faces a charge of "murder in the first degree in Indian Country" for a shooting in Tulsa's Philpott Park. 

An affidavit attached to the complaint from FBI Special Agent Joshua W. Martin reads: "On or about July 10, 2020 I was notified of a dead body at 1140 W. 37th Place, Tulsa, Oklahoma, 74107 which is within the boundaries of the recently determined Creek Nation reservation, which is within the Northern District of Oklahoma."

“The United States Attorney’s Office is pursuing this case consistent with our new responsibilities following the Supreme Court’s McGirt decision,” said U.S. Attorney Trent Shores in a press release. “The cooperation among tribal, local, state, and federal law enforcement is as strong as ever in northeastern Oklahoma. In this case, investigators with the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Tulsa Police Department, and Muscogee (Creek) Nation Lighthorse were on the scene and working together."

Also on Monday, the Tulsa World reported that Kunzweiler announced the dropping of murder charges against Dustin Lee Dennis, 31, in the deaths of his two children in Tulsa last month because of the tribal citizenship of the victims. 

In his office's second statement of the day, Shores addressed the Dennis case.

“The United States Attorney’s Office for the Northern District of Oklahoma has received a number of media inquiries about its anticipated actions in a variety of state cases that have been or may be dismissed as a result of the Supreme Court’s McGirt decision, including the recently dismissed case State of Oklahoma v. Dustin Dennis. First, as a general matter, the United States does not comment on pending investigations," the statement reads.

"Second, let there be no doubt that my team of federal prosecutors, legal support staff, victim specialists, and administrative staff are working around the clock right now to pursue justice and help victims of crime," it continues.

The Supreme Court's ruling holds that much of Oklahoma was never officially dissolved as Indian Territory, and thus the state does not have jurisdiction over certain crimes involving tribal citizens in the boundaries of still-recognized reservations. 

In a statement last week, Kunzweiler said "My greatest concern is on behalf of victims.  They are the most impacted people by this decision.  All they know is they were needlessly victimized.  All they desire is justice.  This will be a significant disruption for them."

Oklahoma had argued before the court that the ruling could cause chaos in the legal system, but many experts in Indian law have made arguments in line with the Court's opinion: that state, federal and Indian governments can successfully navigate jurisdictional questions without major conflict.

In response to Kunzweiler's comments about the dropping of charges in the Dennis case, Aila Hoss, an expert in Indian law and assistant professor at the University of Tulsa College of Law, questioned his framing. 

"This is about process and venue and respecting another government’s jurisdiction," Hoss wrote in an email to Public Radio Tulsa. "Tribal and federal law enforcement also have public safety missions. I don’t think it is fair to suggest that Oklahoma is the only entity that can administer criminal justice."

On Friday, the day after the ruling, former Cherokee Nation Supreme Court Justice Stacy Leeds wrote in Slate that "The sun came up just fine in Tulsa today. Oklahoma state court judges will do their jobs and exercise jurisdiction over most crimes that take place in Oklahoma for the rest of their careers.