|United States v. Ramsey|
|Argued April 22, 1926|
Decided June 1, 1926
|Full case name||United States v. John Ramsey et al.|
|Citations||271 U.S. 467 ( more )|
46 S. Ct. 559; 70 L. Ed. 1039
|Prior||United States v. Ramsey (W.D. Okla.) (unreported)|
|Held that the United States had the authority to prosecute crimes against Native Americans (Indians) on land that was on a reservation and which was still designated Indian Country by federal law.|
|Majority||Sutherland, joined by unanimous|
United States v. Ramsey, 271 U.S. 467 (1926), was a U.S. Supreme Court case in which the Court held that the government had the authority to prosecute crimes against Native Americans (Indians) on reservation land that was still designated Indian Country by federal law. The Osage Indian Tribe held mineral rights that were worth millions of dollars. A white rancher, William K. Hale, devised a plot to kill tribal members to allow his nephew, who was married to a tribal member, to inherit the mineral rights. The tribe requested the assistance of the federal government, which sent Bureau of Investigation agents to solve the murders. Hale and several others were arrested and tried for the murders, but they claimed that the federal government did not have jurisdiction. The district court quashed the indictments, but on appeal, the Supreme Court reversed, holding that the Osage lands were Indian Country and that the federal government therefore had jurisdiction. This put an end to the Osage Indian murders.
In 1834, Congress passed the Indian Trade and Intercourse Actto regulate trade with the Indians and to provide the United States with criminal jurisdiction for crimes committed by or against Indians. This law provided for trial in a federal court for crimes committed by an Indian against a non-Indian or vice versa. At the time of passage, federal jurisdiction over the Indian Territory was given to the U.S. court in Arkansas and, in 1851, this was clarified as the western district court in Arkansas. In 1890, this law was amended to create the Oklahoma Territory and to give the federal courts in western Arkansas, southern Kansas, and eastern Texas jurisdiction over the Indian Territory.
In 1870, the federal government purchased the Kansas reservation from the Osage Nation. The tribe then purchased 1,470,559 acres of land in the Indian Territory from the Cherokee Nation.The land was not suited for farming, but had abundant game. In 1890 when Congress passed the Oklahoma Organic Act forming both the Oklahoma and Indian territories, the Osage Indian Reservation was part of the Oklahoma Territory. In 1887, Congress passed the Dawes Act, which served to break up reservations and allot the land to tribal members. The act did not apply to the Five Civilized Tribes or other tribes in the Indian territory nor to the Osage tribe in the Oklahoma territory. In 1898 the Curtis Act applied allotment to the Five Civilized Tribes, leaving the Osage tribe as the only tribe with a reservation in Oklahoma.
Under the provisions that Congress had established, Oklahoma could not become a state until all reservations were eliminated.The Osage tribe, seeing the disastrous effects of allotment, resisted it until 1906 when they negotiated an allotment different in two major respects. First, no Osage land would be opened up for white settlement as surplus land because the tribe had purchased it, and second, mineral rights were retained by the tribe, and not in a trust status through the federal government. Even though the Osage reservation remained, this allotment was deemed sufficient and Oklahoma became a state in 1907.
This ownership of the land and mineral rights had another consequence. In 1896, Edwin B. Foster signed an oil lease for the entire Osage reservation.By 1902 he was shipping 37,000 barrels of oil and by 1906 his companies were producing over 5 million barrels annually. The Osage tribe was one of the wealthiest in the United States, but with the mineral rights transferring to the land owners in 1926, their murder rates also became the highest in the United States. By 1925, Osage families were earning about $65,000 per year, compared to white families that were averaging $1,000. Congress also passed a law providing that an Osage Indian who was less than half blood, as determined by the Secretary of the Interior, did not have to wait to sell his or her land.
In the early 1920s, Osage Indians who owned headrights, or land where they would obtain mineral rights, began to be murdered—the first two were Charles Whitehornand Anna Brown, both Osage Indians but killed separately. In February 1923, Henry Roan, another Osage, was found in his car, shot once in the back of the head with a .45 caliber pistol. Less than a month later, an explosion in an Osage home killed Reta Smith, an Osage, her white husband W.E. Smith, and their white maid. Reta Smith was Brown's sister and the daughter of Lizzie Q. Kyle (also known as Lizzie Que), who had died and was thought to have been poisoned. Roan was Reta Smith's cousin. Que had three headrights and both daughters had a full headright and a fractional headright, worth a considerable amount of money. These would be inherited by a third daughter, Molly Burkhart, who was married to a white man, Ernie Burkhart. Ernie Burkhart was the nephew of a wealthy Texas rancher, William K. Hale, who had moved to the Osage area.
Following these deaths and several others,the Osage Tribal Council requested federal assistance since local authorities were apparently making no effort to solve the crimes. The U.S. Bureau of Investigation (BOI), which later became the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), was assigned to conduct the investigation. The BOI responded by sending in undercover agents disguised as cattle buyers and cowhands and, through their investigation, determined that the murders had been planned and executed at the direction of Hale. Hale was implicated in the murder of Brown when Kelsie Morrison confessed in court. The BOI also discovered that Hale held a $25,000 insurance policy on Roan and noted that his nephew's wife had inherited all of the Kyle headrights. Hale and John Ramsey were charged in federal court with the murder of Roan; Ernie Burkhart was charged in state court with arranging the Smith bombing.
Ernie Burkhart was tried first. Two weeks into the trial, realizing that he could not win, he changed his plea to guilty and became a witness for the state in exchange for a life sentence.Burkhart testified that Hale was behind the scheme, that Asa "Ace" Kirby was the bomber, and that Henry Grammer was the go-between.
Hale and Ramsey were transferred to Guthrie, Oklahoma in 1926, where they stood trial in state court for the murder of Roan. The trial resulted in a hung jury and a mistrial.The United States Attorney then transferred the case to Oklahoma City and indicted Hale and Ramsey for murder on federal land for the death of Roan. On being indicted, both demurrered on the grounds that the federal government did not have jurisdiction. The U.S. District Court sustained the defendants' motion and the government made a direct appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Justice George Sutherland delivered the opinion of the court. He noted that the indictment was drawn under Revised Statute § 2145, which provides for federal jurisdiction of crimes committed in "Indian Country".This section was no longer applicable to general crimes in Oklahoma after statehood. Crimes committed by or against Indians could still be prosecuted under § 2145 if the crime occurred in Indian Country. The question before the court was whether allotted land, with a restriction on sale by the Indian it was allotted to, was still Indian Country. Since the government controlled whether the land could be sold or otherwise alienated, it was no different from land held in trust and was therefore still Indian Country. The judgment of the district court was in error and was reversed.
Following the decision of the Supreme Court, Hale, Burkhart, and Ramsey were tried in federal court. Ernie Burkhart testified that Hale hired Ramsey to kill Roan.Burkhart also testified to Hale's involvement in the Smith bombing, while Hale testified that he was in Fort Worth, Texas at the time of the killings. All three defendants were convicted and sentenced to life in prison; within days, both Hale and Ramsey appealed.
Hale's appeal was heard first in 1928. It was based on improper procedure in admitting Burkhart's testimony as to the Smith bombing and again on the contention that the federal government did not have jurisdiction to try the case.The Eighth Circuit Court denied the plea to the jurisdiction, noting that the Supreme Court had ruled on that very issue earlier in the case. The court did find that the testimony as to the Smith bombing was not relevant to the Roan murder, was prejudicial against Hale, and required that the case be remanded for retrial. Ramsey's appeal was likewise successful on the same grounds in 1929.
In 1929, both Hale and Ramsey were retried for the murder.Ramsey testified in court and explained how Hale hired him to kill Roan, but later changed his story to claim another person killed Roan. Hale again testified that he had nothing to do with the crime. Both were convicted and again sentenced to 99 years in prison.
Hale entered the Fort Leavenworth Federal Prison on May 30, 1929, and, over the protests of the Osage tribe, was paroled on July 31, 1947.Ramsey was paroled four months later. Burkhart was released in October 1959. Morrison was sentenced to life in prison in 1926 for Brown's murder. In 1965, Governor Henry Bellmon granted Burkhart a full pardon.
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