Eastern district quadrupling staff to keep up with “Indian Country” cases

Collaborator: Brittany Harlow
Published: 04/20/2021, 2:17 AM

(MUSKOGEE, Okla.) As the country changed over from the Trump administration to the Biden administration, Christopher Wilson became Acting U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Oklahoma. He will remain in that position until the president appoints someone else, and the Senate confirms them.    

In the meantime, the Eastern District has seen quite a bit of other changes. Following the Supreme Court’s McGirt decision last year, Wilson said their usually small number of Indian Country case referrals has skyrocketed to about two thousand.    

“We had one of the smallest U.S. attorney's offices in the country, one of the smallest districts in the country,” Wilson said. “We had only seven or eight criminal attorneys on our line.”

The landmark decision determined all 26 counties of the Eastern District are Indian Country, falling under federal or tribal jurisdiction.

To keep up with the influx of new cases and cases being transitioned over from the state, the Eastern District was authorized to hire 16 new attorneys. 

They were recently authorized to hire 17 more. 

“So, you go from an office of, say, a dozen criminal attorneys to nearly 50 criminal attorneys,” Wilson said.

He said they’ve had assistant US attorneys, criminal attorneys and other support staff come from all over the country to assist with federal prosecution in Oklahoma. 

And, Wilson said, recent court rulings have also changed the kinds of cases they are used to prosecuting. 

“We've always traditionally done all of our federal criminal violations, but we typically focused on large scale drug conspiracies,” Wilson said. “We dealt with felons and prohibited persons with firearms. We dealt with public corruption, large scale white-collar money laundering type investigations. Now we're doing a tremendous amount of violent crime.”

That includes more than a hundred murder cases and nearly a hundred violent crimes involving kids. 

“And so as we are seeking to increase our staffing, we've been looking for attorneys who have experience with violent crime, with experience, being able to evaluate a violent crime case, to lead them in violent crime investigation, but also to prosecute those kinds of cases.” Wilson said. 

“It's also put a tremendous strain on our victim services because nearly every one of the cases that we're looking at have victims, and that requires us to honor the Victims’ Rights Act, to notify those victims, to provide those victim services, to allow those victims a voice in those cases. So that's caused quite a bit of strain as well, quite frankly. And we've gotten the opportunity to hire one additional term victim specialist and we're hoping to get more assistance.” 

When asked about the concern that some cases might not be evaluated and prosecuted due to their massive caseload, Wilson said it was valid. 

“We are unable to evaluate and prosecute every crime that is committed by a Native American,” Wilson said. “We are having to focus on the worst and most violent. Fortunately, we're able to refer many of those to our tribal partners for tribal prosecution, for Native Americans who commit crimes.”

There's not enough judicial staff. There's not enough probation officers, aren’t enough law enforcement officers, quite frankly, to do all of those cases.” 

Right now, the Eastern District is taking on cases that involve both American Indian defendants and non-American Indian defendants, since they have jurisdiction over both. But is it exclusive jurisdiction? 

The State of Oklahoma is preparing to bring that question to the Supreme Court later this year, arguing federal law only grants federal exclusivity to prosecute American Indians. The state has concurrent jurisdiction over non-American Indian defendants, Oklahoma Attorney General Mike Hunter argues, even if the crimes were committed against members of a federally recognized tribe on tribal land.

“I can't say what a particular impact it's going to have,” Wilson said. “We're going to have a lot of work to do, regardless of what the Supreme Court should have to decide in that limited issue.” 

This story is a part of the Oklahoma Media Center’s Promised Land collaborative effort, which shows how the landmark McGirt v. Oklahoma decision will affect both tribal and non-Indigenous residents in the state. For more information, click here: https://oklahomamediacenter.com/2021/04/promised-land-oklahoma-collaborative-to-cover-tribal-sovereignty-issue/


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