With the recent amount of cases receiving dismissal or charges coming now federally instead of through the State of Oklahoma due to the McGirt vs. State of Oklahoma Supreme Court case, area law enforcement agencies are trying to stay proactive in how to deal with crimes involving Native Americans.
The most recent case to receive dismissal in Stephens County included the Miles Bench 2012 case, who formerly was convicted for murder in the first degree and sentenced to capital punishment for the beating death of Braylee Henry. Now, the U.S. Attorney’s office has put in a warrant for a new charge.
The new charge is kidnapping resulting in death for Bench.
Stephens County District Attorney Jason Hicks, during a press conference hosted Thursday, May 6, 2021, with Henry’s family and Stephens County Sheriff Wayne McKinney, just after hours the announcement of the dismissal, talked how this effects law enforcement.
Hicks, when asked about how many more cases he expected in the future to fall under this category, said he estimated that this area’s population is around 20% Native American and feels like that is the amount of cases which will be effected under the McGirt ruling.
“I kind of extrapolate that out and anticipate that’s probably the volume of case load that we’ll lose,” Hicks said. “It depends on a whole lot of factors so to say exactly the number that we have, I don’t know at this point, only time will tell, but it is one of those things where you just try to hang onto the cases you can hang on to and to continue to prosecute the cases.”
Going further into the conversation, Hicks said that Sheriff Wayne McKinney and other area law enforcement agencies have done a great job of working through the new requirements.
“Something law enforcement has done that I think is unique to this area, and I’ll credit the sheriff and the chiefs at Marlow and the Chief in Duncan and in Comanche and the other law enforcement agencies in my district, they’ve been proactive with it and they’ve taken the certification from the Lighthorse Police Department, The Chickasaw Nation, they’ve taken that,” Hicks said. “And they’re also working on getting a special law enforcement certification through the Bureau of Indian Affairs so that when they run across an offender who is an Indian, it doesn’t matter, they have jurisdiction, the officers have jurisdiction whether it ends up coming to my office and filed through the state, whether it goes to the tribe or whether it goes to the U.S. Attorneys Office, those officers are going to have jurisdiction.”
While they are still learning more and more about the certifications needed to help through the issue, Hicks wanted citizens of Stephens County to know that safety is very important to him and to the other agencies.
“We take protecting public safety very, very seriously here and you know, I’m going to continue working with law enforcement,” Hicks said. “They’re going to continue doing everything they possibly can to ensure the safety of the citizens of Stephens County.”
Sheriff McKinney explained more about the certificates he has personally and looks to get going forward to keep safety at the forefront for Stephens County residents.
“We’ve been cross-commissioned for probably seven or eight years here in Stephens County (with Lighthouse). We’ve recently been working on a BIA certification which gives our deputies and the investigators some federal authority when a Native is involved in a crime,” McKinney said. “We’re also going to be members of the Safe Trails Task Force which is a task force with the FBI and the U.S. Marshals service that will handle some of the Major Crimes Act. With all that being said, out enforcement officers at a local level have all been trained on state laws. Now we’re having to look at tribal jurisdictions, what the tribal laws are, what the federal statutes are and have to work within those confines. But we’re going to do it because we’re going to make sure our people are safe but its going to be times that if we do respond to these calls, that we may make sure the scene is safe and request Lighthorse to come in and take jurisdiction on it, because after all it is their jurisdiction.”
Hicks then explained officers are taking initiative to ask questions related to tribal status as soon as contact is made with a subject. He said that the departments are not trying to profile anyone but said it speeds up the process of keeping citizens safe.
“The U.S. Supreme Court has now forced us to do that with Native Americans, so it’s a little against our nature to ask those questions but those questions are being asked right off the bat so that we can determine immediately do we need to remain and keep our state hat on, do we need to put on our Lighthorse hat or are we going to need to put on out BIA hat so we know which jurisdiction that we need to take this to,” Hicks said. “We don’t want anything falling through the cracks and what I don’t want is to have a pile of cases come through to the Stephens County Courthouse just to find out that we’re going to have to dismiss it and send it to another prosecuting authority. The best thing to do is to get all of that information right up front before it ever goes to any one of those three prosecuting authorities so we’re doing that, we’re taking proactive steps today to make sure we don’t have any of those problems tomorrow.”
When asked if there are any more active cases in Stephens County, Hicks said he was unaware of anymore at the time.
He said he ultimately wants to use the resources we have in the best nature.
“With that, I’ll use the sheriff as an example. He’s CLEET certified, so he will obviously have jurisdiction through the State of Oklahoma,” Hicks said. “He’s also going to have a Lighthorse certification so he would then be able to present a case to the Chickasaw Nation for prosecution there. He’s also going to have a certification with BIA and I think with the FBI Safe Trails Task Force so he’ll have all of those certifications and if its a major crime with that BIA certification he’ll be able to present something to the US attorneys office for prosecution as well. So what we’re trying to do is avoid having to do an investigation and then find out that all of a sudden we have a problem with a Native American and having to take a step back and asking another investigating agency to step in and reproduce the investigation that had already been done. Trying to maximize the use of the resources that we have.”
Charlene Belew contributed to this story.