First modern-day Choctaw jury trial ends in conviction

By Shelia Kirven

On July 20, 2020, the first modern-day jury trial was held at the Choctaw Nation Judicial Center in Durant. A 39-year-old Choctaw citizen was tried for grand larceny for the theft of a semi-truck full of lumber from the Grant, Oklahoma Travel Plaza on Nov. 3, 2016.

According to the affidavit filed in the case, the semi-truck was stolen from another Choctaw tribal member who was using the vehicle for employment. Grant Travel Plaza contacted Tribal Police, who spoke with the owner of the truck who used GPS and was able to tell the officer in which direction it was traveling. The defendant had driven the semi-truck from Grant to Bennington, Oklahoma, and attempted to get into another semi-truck and was caught by the driver, who was asleep in the back. Bennington law enforcement was called and realized that a truck that was parked nearby was the one that had been stolen from the Grant Travel Plaza. After being questioned and giving several different stories, the defendant realized he was going to be detained by law enforcement, after making incriminating statements.

The defendant exercised his constitutional right of self-representation and waived his right to assistance of counsel. At the conclusion of the one-day trial, the defendant was found guilty by the six-person jury, receiving a recommendation for a two-year sentence and a $2,000 fine. The defendant will serve sentenced time in a local county facility within the territorial jurisdiction of the Choctaw Nation.

Kara Bacon, Prosecuting Attorney for the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma, said, “I think this case we just tried is a good example of how city and state law enforcement can work effectively with tribal law enforcement.”

The Act Establishing A Court of General Jurisdiction for the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma (CB-65-2009) created the current Judicial Branch with a District Court which has general criminal and civil jurisdiction over all tribal Indian Country. This system replaced the CFR Court of Indian Offenses and modernized the Choctaw Nation Judicial Branch to more adequately serve the need for the Judicial Administration of Justice for the Choctaw Nation.

Also, with the Tribal Law and Order Act (TLOA), signed into legislation by President Obama, the tribe has the expanded ability from only trying misdemeanor acts. Under TLOA, the Choctaw Nation can prosecute felony convictions up to three years per count, or nine years total running consecutively, which previously only allowed prosecution of felonies with limited jurisdiction up to a year in county jail. All misdemeanor crimes typically carry up to a year. Murder and other major crimes fall under federal jurisdiction because of the Major Crimes Act and would be prosecuted federally. Any tribal member committing crimes on trust land will be prosecuted either federally or through tribal court. Domestic violence crimes in the Choctaw Nation are under expanded jurisdiction under the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), also signed by President Obama. It was proven that there was a gap that negatively affected Native American victims in Indian Country. The tribe has the ability to prosecute non-Indian offenders, that being the reason for a special juror code that allows non-citizens to participate in the Choctaw Nation jury process, giving non-Indian offenders jury representation and also giving them ability to request a writ to be tried federally.

Cory Ortega, Choctaw Nation’s Assistant Prosecution Attorney, served as the prosecutor for the first jury trial case. Ortega serves a dual role for the Choctaw Nation, also being a Special Assistant U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Oklahoma in Muskogee, the first from the Choctaw Nation to be granted this dual position. If there are federal offenses that occur on Choctaw Nation property, Ortega has the ability to participate in the prosecution of those offenses in federal court. Ortega benefits the Choctaw Nation by giving the tribe a voice directly at the table on federal prosecutions. Before his appointment, the Choctaw Nation had a tribal liaison at the U.S. Attorney’s office but did not have a Choctaw Nation employee in the office. Ortega also works with the Choctaw Nation Tribal Police as a liaison to ensure that cases are in order for submission to the U.S. Attorney’s office.

Bacon said, “I was a prosecutor for 10 years, and I’ve conducted numerous jury trials in state court. Mr. Ortega was a prosecutor and a defense attorney for a number of years, so we have both seen a number of jury trials in the state system and participated in those, and this trial ran very smoothly. Our Choctaw Nation Presiding District Judge, Judge Branam, was an accomplished state court District Judge with unmatched courtroom experience, having tried numerous jury trials. With the level of experience, the system ran very smoothly.”

She went on to say, “It was an honor as a tribal member myself to get to participate in this trial in this new courthouse and under the new system. We were really surprised by the excitement of the jurors to be able to participate. They were engaged the entire time. I think they took their responsibility very seriously, and I’ve had panels before in state court where they were working their best to try to get out of service. The jurors who showed up were really excited about their service, and they were really happy to participate, even in the midst of a pandemic, so we would really like to thank them for their service.”

Ortega agreed, “As Kara said, it was an honor to be a part of the jury trial. The process and procedure of conducting the trial was done in a very efficient manner. The ability of the Choctaw Nation District Court to put on a trial that ran so smoothly, I believe, is a direct testament to the competent professionals that are at the courthouse, the Judge, the court clerk, the court reporter, and the bailiffs from Public Safety. The ability of the Choctaw Nation’s Tribal Court to conduct a jury trial in such an efficient manner will show state and federal authorities as well as Tribal members that we are a legitimate, functioning court. We have competent prosecutors and judicial personnel that are able to handle complex cases efficiently while providing criminal defendants with the due process rights guaranteed not only under the United States Constitution but the Choctaw Nation’s Constitution as well. This has been a big step forward for the Judicial System, for the Tribal Prosecutor’s Office, for our Judicial Branch, and it really is going to help present the Choctaw Nation District Court as a legitimate court system.”

Though no criminal jury trials are scheduled for the immediate future, filings, pleadings and affidavits are typically public record, and future dockets are available through the tribe’s website on the Choctaw Nation’s Judicial Branch’s website. At this time, there are close to 60 current criminal cases and approximately 30 juvenile cases pending in the tribe’s district court.

Frequently Asked Questions

Can Choctaw tribal members be called for jury duty at the Choctaw Judicial Center?

Yes. According to the Choctaw Juror Code, Choctaw tribal members can be asked to volunteer for Choctaw jury duty if they live in the Choctaw Nation’s 10.5 county jurisdiction and have a Choctaw car tag. Non-tribal spouses of tribal tag holders may also be asked if they would like to volunteer for Choctaw jury duty.

Why would a non-tribal member be chosen to sit on a Choctaw Jury?

Under the Violence Against Women Act, the Choctaw Nation is required to have a cross-section of the community, including non-tribal members on a jury.

If chosen, is it mandatory that I serve on a jury with Choctaw Nation?

Currently, jury duty is a volunteer service. Those who are asked can elect not to participate by responding in writing to the request received, declining service. They can also request not to be in the selection process. However, if no volunteers are available later, mandated jury duty could be considered, as full juries must be present at jury trials to eliminate the risk of constitutional error.

Can a tribal member who doesn't have a Choctaw car tag volunteer serve on a Choctaw jury if living within the tribal boundaries?

Yes. The Choctaw Juror Code allows a tribal member living within the 10.5 county tribal jurisdiction the choice to send in a written request to be part of the electronic jury selection process.

Are there any exclusions to serving on a Choctaw Jury?

Yes. To qualify, potential jurors cannot work for the Choctaw Nation Judicial Center, be judges, attorneys, or peacemakers; they cannot have a felony and must live within the territorial jurisdiction.

Do Choctaw Jurors get mileage or payment?

Yes. Those who serve on a tribal jury are entitled to mileage plus payment of $100/day.

The Choctaw Nation District Court focuses on family issues such as divorce, child custody, child support, parental rights, visitation and adoption, civil matters, juvenile matters and guardianship. The Court also presides over criminal matters in accordance to the Tribal Law and Order Act adopted into the Choctaw Nation legislation in 2015. https://www.choctawnationcourt.com/about-us/our-history/