Death Row

Native Americans

Use of the death penalty against Native Americans raises issues of racial discrimination, tribal sovereignty, and the limits of state and federal jurisdiction. Execution of Native Americans is linked to the United States’ history of colonialism and the genocide of Native Americans.


Before the European exploration and colonial conquest of North America, the indigenous population consisted of more than 700 separate cultural units speaking more than 300 languages. A greater number of Indians were killed through European conquest than Europeans were killed by the Black Death pandemic in the 14th century. The first legally sanctioned execution of a Native American occurred in 1639. Military authorities beheaded a man named Nepauduck for the murder of a white man, Abraham Finch. While thousands of extra-judicial lynchings of Native Americans occurred in early American history, 464 Native Americans have been executed through the legal system. In 1711, the first recorded execution of a Native American woman occurred when Connecticut hanged a woman named Waisoiusksquaw for the murder of her husband.

Since 1976, 19 Native Americans have been executed by a total of eight states. Seven of those executions have taken place in Oklahoma. As of January 2023, 23 individuals identified as Native American were on death rows across the country. In July 2020, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Congress had never disestablished the Muscogee (Creek) Reservation, which encompasses the eastern half of Oklahoma, and that Oklahoma lacked jurisdiction to capitally prosecute enrolled members of the Native American Nations for crimes committed on those lands.

Native Americans and the Criminal Justice System

The American native crime victimization rate is twice that of non-Indians. National crime victimization surveys reveal that whites perpetrate 57% of the violent crimes committed against American Indians. 80% of sexual assaults against Native Americans are perpetrated by whites.

The incarceration rate of Native Americans is 38% higher than the national rate. The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights attributes this higher rate to differential treatment by the criminal justice system, lack of access to adequate counsel and racial profiling. Law enforcement agents arrest American Indians and Alaskan Natives at twice the rate of the greater U.S. population for violent and property crimes. On average, American Indians receive longer sentences than non-Indians for crimes. They also tend to serve longer time in prison for their sentences than non-Native Americans. The suicide rate is higher among American native inmates incarcerated in jails than non-Indians. Within the prison system, Native Americans are often subject to abuse when attempting to identify with native cultures through the wearing of head-bands, using native languages, maintaining long-braided hair, listening to native music, and securing culturally-related educational material.


News & Developments


May 31, 2021

Capital Case Roundup — Death Penalty Court Decisions the Week of May 242021

NEWS (5/​24 and 5/​26/​21) — Washington, D.C.: The U.S. Supreme Court issued rul­ings in two death-penal­ty cas­es, deny­ing a defense peti­tion to review an as-applied” chal­lenge to Missouri’s lethal-injec­tion pro­to­col and grant­i­ng a pros­e­cu­tion peti­tion to delay enforce­ment of a state-court rul­ing that had void­ed the con­vic­tion of an Oklahoma death-row prisoner.

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May 14, 2021

Oklahoma Attorney General Attempts to Limit Supreme Court Tribal Sovereignty Ruling as State Appeals Court Voids Four Capital Convictions

The Oklahoma Attorney General’s Office has asked the United States Supreme Court to stay an Oklahoma appeals court rul­ing that void­ed the con­vic­tion of an Oklahoma death-row pris­on­er for a triple mur­der com­mit­ted on trib­al lands against mem­bers of the Chickasaw Nation while state pros­e­cu­tors seek review of that rul­ing by the U.S. high court.

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May 03, 2021

Capital Case Roundup — Death Penalty Court Decisions the Week of April 262021

NEWS (4/​29/​21) — Oklahoma: The Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals has vacat­ed the con­vic­tions and death sen­tences of two more death-row pris­on­ers who, the court found, had com­mit­ted their offens­es against Native Americans on trib­al lands. Applying the U.S. Supreme Court’s land­mark trib­al sov­er­eign­ty rul­ing in McGirt v. Oklahoma, the court found that the mur­ders for which Benjamin Robert Cole Sr. and James Chandler Ryder had been con­vict­ed occurred in Indian coun­try” with­in the his­tor­i­cal bound­aries of the Cherokee Nation reser­va­tion and that the vic­tims were enrolled mem­bers of the Cherokee tribe.

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Jan 18, 2021

This is Not Justice’ — Federal Execution Spree Ends with Planned Execution of African-American on Martin Luther King Jr’s Birthday

An his­tor­i­cal­ly aber­rant six-month fed­er­al exe­cu­tion spree came to a close after mid­night on January 16, 2021 when an African-American man who was sched­uled to die on the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.s birth­day was put to death by pri­vate exe­cu­tion­ers hired in a secret no-bid contract.

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Oct 12, 2020

Supreme Court Native Sovereignty Decision Continues to Reverberate Through Oklahoma’s Death Penalty

A recent U.S. Supreme Court deci­sion that affirmed the sov­er­eign­ty of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation over trib­al lands that span much of the east­ern half of Oklahoma con­tin­ues to rever­ber­ate through the state’s crim­i­nal jus­tice sys­tem as pris­on­ers sen­tenced for mur­ders com­mit­ted by or against Native Americans on trib­al lands chal­lenge the state’s author­i­ty to have pros­e­cut­ed their cases.

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