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Tulsa County DA holds town hall to discuss concerns related to McGirt ruling

Posted at 10:51 PM, Mar 31, 2021
and last updated 2021-04-01 08:24:39-04

TULSA, Okla. — The U.S. Supreme Court decision in McGirt vs. Oklahoma continues to make waves across the Sooner State.

READ MORE: Supreme Court rules much of eastern Oklahoma remains tribal reservation

Tulsa County District Attorney Steve Kunzweiler hosted a town hall Wednesday night to try and answer some questions and concerns many have surrounding the decision. One of the biggest concerns since the McGirt case is some convicted of crimes prior to the ruling could be released due to tribal status.

That’s the worry for Bobbi Nickel and four other families. The group held a protest outside the town hall Wednesday. Their loved ones were killed in a hit-and-run in Tulsa in 2007. The woman convicted in the case, Kimberly Graham, claims as a Native American and due to the McGirt ruling, she should not have been prosecuted.

Now, there’s a chance she could be released after serving just 13 of her 107-year sentence. Because of the federal statute of limitations, she couldn’t be prosecuted again.

READ MORE: Woman convicted in 2007 fatal hit-and-run seeks release due to tribal jurisdiction

“If she gets out, she doesn’t serve a life sentence anymore, but we all have to serve it," Nickel said. "We don’t get a choice. We have to serve the life sentence she imposed on us.”

Kunzweiler said this isn’t just a criminal matter but can also affect businesses.

In the town hall, he pointed out that there are still some questions over jurisdiction in cases, federal versus tribal. Many cases all depend on the tribal status of both victim and suspect, which poses a problem for victims.

For example, Kunzweiler said if a non-native person commits a crime against a native person, the tribe cannot file charges unless it's a certain domestic-related offense. Only the federal government would be able to file the charge.

Kunzweiler said he's heard from many victims who say they don't know what's going on with their case.

“For those victims, I worry about that," Kunzweiler said. "I want them to know what I would want to know, which is, I don’t want that guy driving again. I want that person off the street. I want that person to be held accountable.

Kunzweiler said there are many cases he normally would have filed this year that he now doesn’t have jurisdiction over. He wants to ensure justice is served.

“I want these cases to be prosecuted," Kunzweiler said. "I, historically, have been prosecuting those cases. If I can’t prosecute them, I want other jurisdictions to be picking that ball up and running with it and protecting the citizens.”

Kunzweiler encourages citizens with questions and concerns to contact their congressional, state, and tribal representatives and leaders. He said everyone has to work together to get these issues resolved.

Cherokee Nation Attorney General Sara Hill released a statement saying:

First and foremost, the victims and their families in these cases have our full support. We understand that this process is painful to revisit, and the Cherokee Nation remains in close contact with victims of cases falling under our jurisdiction to ensure we are doing everything we can to fight for justice. We've also increased funding for victim support services so that no one is left without the help they may need.

Following the McGirt decision and in preparation for the OCCA's ruling and subsequent case dismissals this month, we have been expanding our court capacity and budget, and updated our criminal code to ensure jurisdiction transitions go as smoothly as possible. We have already refiled more than 400 of these dismissed cases in tribal courts, and are working closely alongside our federal partners as they do the same. We want our citizens and all of our neighbors in Oklahoma to feel protected, and no one should fear a surge of violent criminals suddenly running free.

We also recognize that this situation is the result of over a century of misapplied criminal law that is finally being rectified, and that with some cases it may not be a simple process. In some cases, due to restrictions on our own prosecutorial authority in tribal courts, as well as the federal government's limited resources and the statute of limitations, resentencing may not be possible. While these make up only a small minority of cases, it is not fair that the victims are put in this situation through no fault of their own. We understand there is more work to be done and are doing everything we can with our federal and state partners to improve the system so that these unacceptable gaps in jurisdiction no longer exist. Tribes, the federal government, the Oklahoma Legislature and our state agencies must be working closely to make clear that our shared priority is keeping the public safe.

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