OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) - An Oklahoma appeals court on Thursday overturned the manslaughter conviction and 15-year prison sentence of a former police officer based on a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that found that much of the eastern part of the state remains an American Indian reservation.
Former Tulsa officer Shannon James Kepler, 60, is a member of Creek Nation who was convicted of killing his daughter’s boyfriend in Tulsa on land within the historic reservation of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation.
In a ruling last year known as the McGirt decision, the U.S. Supreme Court found that Oklahoma lacks jurisdiction for crimes on tribal reservations in which the defendants or victims are tribal citizens. The decision has led to a massive increase in caseloads for federal prosecutors in Oklahoma.
After three trials on the state murder charges ended with deadlocked juries, Kepler, who is white, was convicted in 2017 on state charges of manslaughter for the fatal shooting of Jeremey Lake, who was Black and was 19 years old when he was killed.
Kepler, who was off duty at the time of the shooting, claimed he fired in self-defense because Lake was armed, but no weapon was found at the scene.
Federal prosecutors filed a first-degree murder charge against Kepler in November after he appealed his conviction to the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals citing the McGirt ruling. The court ruled in his favor on Thursday.
“In anticipation that Shannon Kepler’s state murder conviction would be dismissed by the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals, the U.S. Attorney’s Office charged Kepler in a three-count indictment for the murder of Jeremey Lake,” acting U.S. Attorney Clint Johnson said in a statement to The Associated Press. “We did so in November to ensure a seamless and timely transition from state to federal court once the decision was made.”
Kepler’s motion to dismiss the federal charge on grounds of double jeopardy were rejected in January. Kepler, who has pleaded not guilty, is being held at the Oklahoma State Penitentiary in McAlester.
Kepler’s attorney, Stan Monroe, said Kepler was “ecstatic” after learning of the court’s ruling. He said the next step is to ask the federal court to free Kepler on bond pending the outcome of his federal trial, which is scheduled to begin April 19.
The appeals court on Thursday also overturned the first-degree murder conviction and life sentence of Jordan Batice Mitchell, who was sentenced for the 2013 shooting death of a man in Tulsa. The court determined that Mitchell was a registered citizen of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation and that the crime occurred within the tribe’s reservation boundaries.
The state appeals court last week overturned two convictions based on McGirt, including that of Shaun Bosse, who was sentenced to death for killing a woman and her two children.
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