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Danny Turner was a 17-year-old high school student when he was sentenced to life in prison for first-degree murder. He and a friend had found some chemicals in a school science lab and put them in a classmate’s drink, causing his death.
Despite multiple appeals, Turner has sat behind bars for almost 20 years with no hope of ever getting out—until a few months ago.
The Supreme Court declared in July that 3 million acres of eastern Oklahoma had always belonged to the Muscogee (Creek) Nation. The decision was a major win for the land rights of that tribe and all Native Americans.
But it could also grant Turner, a member of the Creek nation who was charged by the state in what’s now recognized as “Indian Country”—and others like him—their freedom. Dozens of Native Americans in Oklahoma are now using the Supreme Court’s decision to appeal for retrials in hopes of lesser sentences or even acquittals.
“It does give people a lot of hope,” Turner told VICE News. “Of all the things after all these years, you know, can you believe it’s something like this that could actually be a loophole or open the door and possibly give a person their freedom back.”
The Supreme Court case involved Jimcy McGirt, an enrolled member of the Seminole Nation who was convicted by Oklahoma of sex crimes in 1997 and sentenced to more than 1,000 years in prison. McGirt appealed, arguing that because the crimes took place on Native territory, the state shouldn’t have prosecuted him in the first place.
“Before reading the whole opinion, frankly, I ran to my boys’ room and told them that the reservation remained, that their homes, their homeland, had been affirmed and respected.”
Acting as his own lawyer in court, McGirt cited an 1885 law called the Major Crimes Act, which gives the federal government jurisdiction over violent crimes committed in Indian Country. When the Supreme Court ruled in his favor, the decision also cast doubt on hundreds of eastern Oklahoma convictions. Although the ruling technically applies to the Muscogee (Creek) Nation, members of other tribes in the region have been using the argument in their cases.
State opponents of McGirt’s case claimed that recognizing the land as Native would send hundreds of criminals back onto the streets, but that’s not exactly the case.
“They wanted to show a sort of ‘The sky is falling’ scenario, that tons of people would be released and that there would be massive lawlessness,” said Mike McBride III, an attorney with expertise in Indian law. “And I just don’t think that the data would support that.”
In fact, fewer than 200 of the nearly 1,900 self-identifying Native Americans incarcerated in Oklahoma will even qualify for a retrial, according to an analysis from The Atlantic. So far, at least two people have had their sentences vacated, including one man on death row, while another two have won the right to a new trial. Turner is still working on his case.
In addition to granting hundreds of Native prisoners a second chance, the Supreme Court’s decision also has a tangible, emotional impact for Native people, who have watched their land rights deteriorate over decades.
“Before reading the whole opinion, frankly, I ran to my boys’ room and told them that the reservation remained, that their homes, their homeland, had been affirmed and respected, and that we want to be raised in our own home,” said Jonodev Chaudhuri, ambassador for the Muscogee (Creek) Nation. “That’s a powerful feeling for not just any Muskogee but any Native person from any tribal nation.”