The Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals on Thursday overturned a state manslaughter conviction and 15-year prison sentence given to a former Tulsa police officer, clearing the way for his eventual release while he faces similar charges in federal court.
The state appellate court found that a landmark U.S. Supreme Court ruling in McGirt v. Oklahoma issued last summer meant Shannon Kepler’s manslaughter conviction and sentence was invalid because the state didn’t have the jurisdiction to prosecute him.
Kepler is a member of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation, and the fatal shooting occurred within the boundaries of the tribe’s reservation.
“The ruling in McGirt governs this case and requires us to find the State of Oklahoma was without jurisdiction to prosecute Kepler,” the court said in its four-page opinion.
In keeping with recent McGirt-related decisions, the appellate court gave itself 20 days before it would issue a final order closing the case to give federal prosecutors time to coordinate with state officials on the case transfer.
A federal judge has already allowed Kepler to be released from custody pending his trial, over the objections of prosecutors.
Kepler is believed to be one of hundreds who have sought to overturn their state convictions after Jimcy McGirt in July won his appeal before the U.S. Supreme Court on jurisdictional grounds.
As a result of the McGirt ruling, crimes occurring within the Muscogee (Creek) Nation involving suspects or victims who are American Indian now must be prosecuted in either federal or tribal court because the Supreme Court ruled their reservation land was never disestablished by Congress.
In 2017, a Tulsa County District Court jury found Kepler guilty of manslaughter in the heat of passion following his fourth trial in the 2014 shooting death of 19-year-old Jeremey Lake.
Kepler appealed his conviction and sentence on several fronts, but it was the jurisdictional challenge that overturned his sentence and propelled it to federal court.
A federal grand jury named Kepler in a three-count indictment unsealed in November that charges the former officer with first-degree murder in Indian Country, causing death by using and discharging a firearm during and in relation to crimes of violence and assault with a dangerous weapon in Indian Country.
The latter charge is in connection with shots allegedly fired at Lake’s younger brother during the confrontation. The younger brother was not injured.
McGirt v. Oklahoma: Supreme Court decision and aftermath