In Murphy v. Royal, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit invalidated the state court murder conviction and death sentence of Patrick Dwayne Murphy, an American Indian, after concluding that Oklahoma courts lacked jurisdiction.

Murphy was convicted of the murder of George Jacobs in Oklahoma state court. After his conviction and death sentence were affirmed on direct appeal, he applied for state post-conviction relief in 2004, arguing that Oklahoma state courts lacked jurisdiction to try him. The Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals (OCCA) ordered an evidentiary hearing.

Under 18 U.S.C. § 1153, murders committed by Indians in Indian country fall exclusively under federal jurisdiction. Following the evidentiary hearing, the state district court determined that the crime did not occur in Indian country as defined under the 18 U.S.C. § 1151, and concluded that Oklahoma had jurisdiction over the matter. That conclusion was affirmed by OCCA in 2005. After his request for federal habeas relief was denied by the federal district court, Murphy appealed.

One of the issues before the Tenth Circuit was whether or not the crime occurred in Indian country. Prior case law acknowledged the existence of the Creek Reservation but the practice of allotment, the policy of Congress dividing communal Indian lands into individualized parcels for private ownership by tribal members, brought into question whether or not Congress intended to disestablish or diminish the Creek Reservation.

In its thorough discussion addressing the Indian country jurisdiction issue, the Tenth Circuit tackled four key topics: (1) reservations, (2) the Major Crimes Act, (3) the meaning of “Indian country,” and (4) how a reservation can be disestablished or diminished.

Concluding that Oklahoma lacked jurisdiction, the Tenth Circuit found:

  1. At the time the OCCA addressed Murphy’s jurisdictional claim, the Solem v. Bartlett (1984) framework constituted clearly established federal law as determined by the Supreme Court.
  2. The OCCA failed to apply the Solem framework, a three-part test for determining whether Congress has altered a reservation’s boundaries, and rendered a decision contrary to this clearly established law when it resolved Murphy’s jurisdictional claim.
  3. The federal government has exclusive jurisdiction over Murphy’s case because, under the Solem framework, Congress has not disestablished the Creek Reservation.

The Tenth Circuit reversed the district court’s judgment and remanded with instructions to grant Murphy’s application for a writ of habeas corpus under 28 U.S.C. § 2254.

For more information on this case, visit Turtle Talk.


Pauline Toboulidis

The American Law Institute


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