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  • In 1999, Patrick Dwayne Murphy, a member of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation (MCN), attacked another member of the tribe on the MCN reservation in Oklahoma.
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  • Murphy stabbed and cut the other man, causing severe wounds. The man later died.
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  • A state court found Murphy guilty of murder and sentenced him to death in 2000.
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  • Since then, he has attempted to appeal the ruling.
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  • He claims that because the crime took place on Indian land and the victim was Native American, the state of Oklahoma did not have the right to try him.
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  • In the United States, the federal government has legal jurisdiction over murders carried out by Native Americans on lands in "Indian Country."
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  • The term "Indian Country" means land inside federally-recognized reservation borders, dependent Indian communities or areas historically given to tribe members which their families still hold.
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  • In time, Murphy's case landed in a federal appeals court.
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  • After examining historic documents and earlier rulings, judges overturned the guilty finding in August 2017.
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  • This meant that Murphy could have a new trial in a federal court, with the tribal court sharing jurisdiction.
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  • In federal court, he would likely escape execution because federal law gives tribes the right to decide if they want to execute criminals.
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  • MCN rejected the death penalty.
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  • But that was not the end of the case. In fact, it became stranger.
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  • The MCN reservation covers nearly two million hectares of land and 11 Oklahoma counties, with a total population of about 950,000.
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  • Recognizing MCN's jurisdiction meant all this land was legally "Indian Country."
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  • And that, in turn, meant that MCN had civil and criminal jurisdiction over nearly half the state of Oklahoma.
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  • Oklahoma has taken the case to the U.S. Supreme Court.
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  • The state argues that MCN stopped existing in 1907 when Congress created the state. MCN says the land is theirs, as established by an 1866 treaty.
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  • But there is a problem with Oklahoma's argument.
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  • The law says only Congress has the power to change reservations and it must do so in very clear language.
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  • And in the case of the state of Oklahoma, Congress never did it.
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  • Now, the Supreme Court will decide.
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  • In arguments at the court on November 27, Oklahoma's lawyers said if the federal decision that overturned Murphy's sentence is accepted, the results would be like an earthquake.
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  • Tribe members would not have to pay state taxes and could demand tax money from non-Native business owners.
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  • MCN could also write its own land use and environmental laws.
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  • Oklahoma also worries that hundreds of jailed Native Americans who were tried in the state system would have to be retried in federal courts.
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  • Oklahoma is one of the nation's biggest producers of oil and natural gas, and the energy industry is worried about the case.
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  • The Oklahoma Independent Petroleum Association (OIPA) prepared a friend of the court briefing.
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  • It noted that if the federal decision is not overturned, the tribe could rightly take possession of oil and natural gas wells that sit on its land.
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  • Robert Miller says the association's concerns are exaggerated.
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  • Miller is a member of the Eastern Shawnee tribe in Oklahoma and a professor at Arizona State University's Sandra Day O'Connor College of Law.
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  • "The struggle between governments is over money and power, and power means jurisdiction," he said. "Oklahoma can still control its non-Native citizens.
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  • It just doesn't want to lose environmental control or civil and criminal jurisdiction over the Indians."
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  • During spoken arguments, justices questioned the state's lawyers about their concerns and about the possible effects of letting the decision stand.
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  • "Yes, there will be turmoil," said Miller. He believes the Supreme Court should not consider the effects on real life.
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  • "The Court is supposed to decide the case based only on the law," he said.
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  • He talked about the important 1954 court case that ended racial separation in U.S. public schools.
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  • That decision led to riots, violence and even murders in the American south.
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  • "Should the Supreme Court, then, knowing what would happen, not have (made) that ruling?" Miller asked.
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  • I'm Susan Shand.