On August 8, 2017 the U.S. Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals granted Patrick Dwayne Murphy’s writ of habeas corpus, and overturned his murder conviction and death sentence in Oklahoma. The Court ruled the State of Oklahoma did not have jurisdiction to prosecute Murphy because the crime occurred on Indian land subject to federal jurisdiction.
In 2000 Patrick Murphy was convicted of first-degree murder in McIntosh County, Oklahoma District Court. He was sentenced to death based on the jury’s finding of aggravating circumstances.
Murphy’s prosecution was based on the death of George Jacobs on August 28, 1999. Murphy’s common-law wife of three years Patsy, had formerly lived with Jacobs and had a child with him. A couple of days before Jacobs death Murphy and Patsy had an argument about Jacobs, during which Murphy allegedly threatened to “get Jacobs.”
On the evening of August 28 Jacobs and a friend had been drinking for some hours.* The car they were in passed by a car with Murphy and two friends who were going in the opposite direction. Both cars stopped. During the succeeding events Jacobs’ throat was cut, his stomach and chest were slashed, his face was bloody, and his genitals were cut off.
When found lying in a ditch beside the road Jacobs was still breathing, but unconscious. He died shortly thereafter.
When arrested Murphy only admitted kicking Jacobs and cutting his penis. He said Jacobs was breathing and conscious when he left.
Murphy was indicted and prosecuted for Jacobs’ murder by the McIntosh County District Attorney’s Office.
During Murphy’s trial the medical examiner described Jacobs’ “cause of death as blood loss from the various cutting wounds, primarily the genital and neck wounds. Death was not immediate. Jacobs bled to death in somewhere between four to twelve minutes, perhaps even longer. He described the multiple lacerations and fractures the victim suffered to his face, neck, chest, and abdomen.”
During his trial the prosecution relied heavily on Murphy’s admissions to the police, and testimony by Patsy. The judge denied Murphy’s objection to admission of his police statement that he claimed was obtained in violation of his right to counsel, and denied his objection that the compelling of Patsy to testify against him violated the marital privilege.
After convicting him, the jury recommended Murphy be sentenced to death in rejecting his arguments to mitigate his sentence that included he suffered from mental retardation and had a degree of brain damage.
His conviction and sentence were affirmed on appeal in May 2002 by the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeal (OCCA).
A month later, in June 2002 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Atkins v. Virginia, 536 U.S. 304, 321 (2002), that the Eighth Amendment “places a substantive restriction on the State’s power to take the life of a mentally retarded offender.”
While is direct appeal was pending Murphy filed a post-conviction petition that included a claim that his death sentence was invalid because of his mental retardation. In September 2002 his petition was denied except for his mental retardation claim under the Supreme Court’s Atkins ruling. After an evidentiary hearing the district court concluded Murphy “had not raised sufficient evidence to create a fact question on the issue of mental retardation.” In March 2003 the OCCA affirmed Murphy’s death sentence.
In March 2004 Murphy filed a federal habeas corpus petition that contained claims he hadn’t raised in his state post-conviction petition. His federal petition remained pending while he pursued those additional claims in state court.
Murphy and Jacobs were both Indians and members of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation. All the events related to Jacobs’ murdered occurred within the boundaries of the Creek Nation, which qualifies as Indian country because of its status as a reservation under federal jurisdiction.
In March 2004 Murphy filed a second state post-conviction petition that among its claims alleged:
1, Oklahoma lacked jurisdiction because the Major Crimes Act gives the federal government exclusive jurisdiction to prosecute murders committed by Indians in Indian country.
2. The OCCA’s earlier denial of a jury trial on the issue of his “mental retardation” had violated his constitutional rights.
The OCCA ordered an evidentiary hearing on Murphy’s jurisdiction claim.
In December 2004 the district court ruled that the state had jurisdiction to prosecute Murphy because the crime occurred on land owned by the state.
In December 2005 the OCCA affirmed the district court’s ruling the state had jurisdiction, but remanded for a jury trial on his Atkins claim.
In December 2005 Murphy amended his federal habeas petition to include his challenge to the state’s jurisdiction to prosecute him. In August 2007 the federal district court denied all of Murphy’s claims. Murphy appealed to the U.S. Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals, which abated his appeal pending resolution of his Atkins (mental retardation) claim in state court.
In September 2009 a jury determined Murphy was not mentally retarded because he had an I.Q. score of 80, thus leaving his death sentence in place.
In April 5, 2012 the OCCA affirmed the district court’s finding that Murphy wasn’t mentally retarded.
Three weeks later, on April 26, 2012 Murphy filed a second federal habeas corpus petition challenging the state’s resolution of the issue of his mental retardation. His petition was denied by the federal district court judge in May 2015.
Murphy appealed to the U.S. Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals, which consolidated his appeals of the denial so his first and second federal petitions.
On August 8, 2017 the a three-judge panel of the federal appeals court unanimously reversed Murphy’s conviction and death sentence based on their conclusion that, “Because Mr. Murphy is an Indian and because the crime occurred in Indian country, the federal court has exclusive jurisdiction. Oklahoma lacked jurisdiction.” The Court’s 126-page ruling in Murphy v. Royal, No. 07-7068 (10th cir., 8-8-17) stated in part:
“The federal government began creating Indian reservations during the nineteenth century. … “[T]he term [‘Indian reservation’] has come to describe federally-protected Indian tribal lands, meaning those lands which Congress has set apart for tribal and federal jurisdiction.” … the term “Indian country” includes not only reservations but other lands as well.
The Major Crimes Act is the jurisdictional statute at the heart of this case. It applies to enumerated crimes committed by Indians in “Indian country.”
If the Major Crimes Act applies to an Indian defendant, he or she “shall be tried in the same courts and in the same manner as are all other persons committing such offense within the exclusive jurisdiction of the United States.” 18 U.S.C. § 3242.
The parties agree that Mr. Murphy and Mr. Jacobs, both members of the Creek Nation, qualify as Indians for purposes of the Major Crimes Act.
In cases decided in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the Supreme Court explained that the Major Crimes Act applied to crimes committed within the boundaries of Indian reservations regardless of the ownership of the particular land on which the crimes were committed.” [Op cit. 23-26]
Consequently, the state’s ownership of land on the reservation was irrelevant to determining a murder committed on that land could only be prosecuted in federal court. As required by the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act, the appeals court also determined the OCCA’s denial of Murphy’s jurisdiction claim was contrary to clearly established federal law. The Court concluded its ruling stating:
“Because Mr. Murphy is an Indian and because the crime occurred in Indian country, the federal court has exclusive jurisdiction. Oklahoma lacked jurisdiction.
Mr. Murphy’s state conviction and death sentence are thus invalid. The OCCA erred by concluding the state courts had jurisdiction, and the district court erred by concluding the OCCA’s decision was not contrary to clearly established federal law. We therefore reverse the district court’s judgment and remand with instructions to grant Mr. Murphy’s application for a writ of habeas corpus under 28 U.S.C. § 2254. The decision whether to prosecute Mr. Murphy in federal court rests with the United States.” [Op. cit. 126]
Click here to read the appeals court’s ruling in Patrick Dwayne Murphy v. Terry Royal, No. 07-7068 (10th cir., 8-8-17).
The Court’s ruling was almost 12 years after Murphy amended his federal habeas petition in December 2005 to include the jurisdiction issue.
* Jacobs’s post-mortem blood alcohol level was determined to be .23 — almost three times the legal limit.