Jeannie Blalock was an energetic grandmother in her 60s who loved sports when she was shot dead during a carjacking in the parking lot of her Tulsa apartment complex in 2017.
The Tulsa County District Attorney’s office charged four people in connection with Blalock’s death. Jaydon Harring and and Tonnako Miller, both teenagers at the time of Blalock’s killing, pled guilty to murder and were sentenced to life in prison.
But Harring and Miller both challenged their convictions in 2021 and 2022 arguing that the state didn’t have the power to prosecute them, because Blalock was a citizen of the Muscogee Nation and they were non-Native. The 2020 McGirt U.S. Supreme Court ruling held that nearly half of Oklahoma, including Tulsa, was tribal land, wiping out the state’s ability to prosecute many crimes.
For Blalock’s family, it was another delay in justice.
“We have not been able to rest for five years,” said son Sherman Blalock.
Even before the McGirt ruling complicated jurisdiction surrounding his mother’s case, Sherman said he was frustrated with Oklahoma’s criminal justice system.
But Harring and Miller will remain in state custody after the Supreme Court handed down the Castro-Huerta ruling in June, giving the state concurrent jurisdiction to prosecute non-Natives when they commit crimes against Native people on reservation land.
After the new ruling, local district attorneys are preparing to pick up cases they say weren’t being charged by federal authorities.
Tulsa County District Attorney Steve Kunzweiler, who has been a vocal critic of the McGirt ruling, pointed to Blalock’s case. The state court, however, never ruled on Harring’s motion to dismiss and in fact, delayed the hearing until after the Castro-Huerta decision was handed down in June by the US Supreme Court. Miller’s motion to dismiss was denied in September of 2021 after the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals ruled that McGirt does not apply retroactively.
But, it’s unclear how many cases Tulsa County will claw back after the ruling.
“I’m going to want to make sure that people are being held accountable for their wrongful conduct,” said Kunzweiler.
There’s scant data on how many cases Oklahoma prosecutors will take over from federal authorities after the Castro-Huerta ruling. Kunzweiler acknowledged he didn’t know the number of cases his office is prepared to prosecute. An April article published in the Atlantic by KOSU and co-authored by Rebecca Nagle showed that less than a thousand cases have been affected by the McGirt ruling since it was decided in July of 2020.
Kunzweiler has claimed that federal authorities dropped the ball on some criminal cases after the McGirt ruling and that many crimes were going un-prosecuted. According to a study Kunzweiler’s office commissioned, federal prosecutors were prosecuting less than a third of criminal cases after the McGirt ruling.
But the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Northern District of Oklahoma in Tulsa disputes numbers from the study as does Cherokee Nation’s Attorney General Sara Hill. Federal prosecutors say no case has gone un-prosecuted and tribal courts have picked up cases not handled by U.S. Attorneys.
After the McGirt ruling, Oklahoma’s Five Tribes ramped up their criminal justice systems — spending millions of dollars to hire more prosecutors, judges and tribal police. The need for more federal funding for tribal law enforcement hasn’t gone away with the Castro-Huerta ruling.
“Nothing about this says that the tribe can’t prosecute Indians or that the reservations have been diminished in any way,” said Cherokee Nation attorney General Sara Hill. “The work at our prosecutor’s office will look exactly the same tomorrow as it looked yesterday. There’s really no difference in the work that we do.“
Those additional resources will be key when the newly reauthorized Violence Against Women Act takes effect in October. The federal law gives tribes more authority over non-Natives on tribal land for crimes like sexual assault, child abuse, stalking and sex trafficking in addition to domestic violence crimes..
Federal authorities will begin referring cases to tribes for prosecution under the new Violence Against Women provisions later this year.
Kunzweiler welcomes more help prosecuting domestic violence cases.
“If I have an added resource now where the tribal authorities will pick those cases up and aggressively prosecute them, and we could jointly handle those cases, great,” Kunzweiler said. “That’s the kind of relationship I’d love to be able to have.”
A few weeks after the ruling in Castro-Huerta, Oklahoma Attorney General John O’Connor issued a directive to prosecutors and law enforcement on the changing criminal justice landscape in Oklahoma saying that, “law enforcement officers should give their respective district attorneys the option to prosecute any non-Indian criminal defendants first, before any such case is referred to the federal government for prosecution.”
Now that the state has concurrent jurisdiction over felony crimes committed by non-Natives, the question remains whether that jurisdiction will increase safety on the six reservations in Oklahoma.
Hill says her office will keep moving forward.
“No decision will grind the tribes into dust,” she said.