Oklahoma drops murder charges in vehicle child deaths

TULSA, Okla. (AP) — An Oklahoma district attorney's office dismissed two murder charges against a man whose two children died in a hot vehicle after prosecutors determined the children’s tribal history.

The Tulsa County District Attorney’s Office dropped charges filed Friday against Dustin Lee Dennis, 31. He was facing two second-degree felony murder charges after the June deaths of his children, Ryan and Tegan, the Tulsa World reported.

Last week, the Supreme Court ruled that a large chunk of eastern Oklahoma remains an American Indian reservation, meaning that Oklahoma prosecutors lack the authority to pursue criminal cases against American Indian defendants in parts of Oklahoma, including most of Tulsa.

“To have put the effort in that law enforcement did in this investigation because of what we originally had to go through, it’s gotta be devastating for the victim — I feel bad for her,” said District Attorney Steve Kunzweiler, referencing Tegan and Ryan’s mother, a Cherokee Nation citizen who on Monday presented information about the children’s status to authorities.

Court records do not identify Dennis as a tribal citizen, but federal prosecutors determined in 2010 that the government still has jurisdiction to pursue cases under the existing General Crimes Act if a tribal citizen is a victim of a crime on tribal land but the alleged perpetrator is not enrolled in one.

Dennis had been released from jail on a personal recognizance bond, which Kunzweiler said last month was partly because surveillance footage showed that the children entered Dennis' truck by themselves.

A document filed against Dennis on Friday alleged that he committed child neglect by “sleeping for hours during the day when he was the sole caretaker,” which resulted in their deaths.

Dennis reported that he and the children drove to the store before returning home, where he slept for four or five hours. Police said he told them he did not see the children when he woke up, but he found their bodies on his truck's floorboard and brought them in his house.

The site of the reported homicide is within the boundaries of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation.

Kunzweiler said his office has contacted the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Tulsa to encourage them to review Dennis' case.

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