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Politics

FACT CHECK: Oklahoma Gov. says convicted drunk driver could go free

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Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt gives his fourth State of the State address on Feb. 7, 2022.

In the State of the State address on Monday, Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt told lawmakers that a man convicted of killing a 12-year-old boy while driving drunk could go free without so much as a traffic ticket on his record.

He said the 2020 Supreme Court decision in McGirt v. Oklahoma is hurting the state’s ability to prosecute crimes.

"Put simply, McGirt jeopardizes justice," said Stitt.

The 2020 decision has resulted in the affirmation of the reservation boundaries for six tribes in Oklahoma, returning the right to prosecute crimes to the tribes and the federal government.

Tribal leaders said Stitt is fearmongering by talking about the case, because the man convicted of the crime is still in state prison.

So, we wondered what was true, and the reality is that it’s complicated.

Background

In 2013, Richard Ray Roth was driving drunk in Wagoner County when he hit 12-year-old Billy Jack Lord while the boy was riding his bicycle home from a church event. Roth then left the scene of the accident. His blood alcohol level was more than three times the legal limit. Roth was convicted of first-degree manslaughter by a Wagoner County jury and sentenced to 20 years in prison.

The McGirt Appeal

Following the McGirt v. Oklahoma decision in July 2020, Roth appealed his conviction, saying the state didn’t have the right to prosecute him. Roth claims that because the victim was a citizen of the Cherokee Nation and the crime happened inside the boundaries of the Muscogee Nation reservation, he should have been prosecuted in federal court under the Major Crimes Act, not by the state of Oklahoma. The Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals agreed, and Roth’s case is pending review.

The statements

What Gov. Kevin Stitt said: "The case can’t be retried in federal court, and Roth could go free from punishment without even so much as a traffic ticket on his record."What Muscogee Nation Principal Chief David Hill said: "The Governor's claim that Richard Roth could be released from prison due to McGirt is patently false."

What's the truth?

Technically, both of these things could be true, but Roth’s case has not been settled. Last month, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to consider whether the state of Oklahoma should have concurrent jurisdiction in cases where a non-Native person like Roth commits a crime against an Indian on Indian land. That process could be lengthy.

If the Supreme Court agrees that the state does have concurrent jurisdiction, Roth will remain in state custody, and his state conviction will likely stand.

If the Supreme Court believes its 2020 McGirt v. Oklahoma ruling does need to be modified, Roth’s conviction will be overturned. What might happen next is a little unclear. The federal statute of limitations for first-degree manslaughter is five years, which means that Roth likely could not be prosecuted for the same crime. However, federal prosecutors may have some other legal options.

The legal fight

In his State of the State address in 2021, Stitt said the McGirt v. Oklahoma decision was one of the most pressing issues facing the state. The state attorney general’s office then filed more than 40 petitions asking the nation’s high court to overturn the ruling.

Oklahoma’s tribal leaders filed several counter petitions asking the high court to uphold the ruling.

"Our commitment remains pretty straightforward. We want to see the law implemented as the law is understood," said Stephen Greetham, the Chickasaw Nation's senior counsel.

In his 2022 address, the Governor said the state is at a crossroads and “has been robbed of the authority to prosecute crimes.”

"This isn’t about winning and losing. This isn’t personal. It’s not Kevin Stitt versus the tribes," said Stitt, referencing recent media reports that leaders of the Five Tribes and the Governor haven't met since last year and that there is animosity between them.

After the Court rejected all of the state’s petitions but one, Muscogee Nation Principal Chief David Hill attended the Governor’s State of the State address at the invitation of House Speaker Charles McCall. He hoped Stitt would announce plans to start working with the tribes to implement the decision, but that is not what he heard.

"The Governor continues to throw himself down kicking and screaming in the path to implement McGirt. His fear-mongering [SIC] and lies serve no one who lives in the State of Oklahoma," Hill said in a statement.

Tribal leaders say they have invested billions of dollars and are committed to providing a safe environment for all Oklahomans.

“It’s time for the governor to move forward and work alongside our tribes," Cherokee Nation Principal Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr. said in a statement. "Tribal nations have been crucial to the successes in Oklahoma, contributing to jobs, economic growth, public safety, COVID response, health care and supporting education, communities, roads, and law enforcement.”

Choctaw Nation Chief Gary Batton said he didn't attend the State of the State address because he thinks the Governor "has no respect for tribal sovereignty."

“As leader of the Choctaw Nation, I am committed to doing what’s best for my members, and for our fellow Oklahomans. That’s why we remain dedicated to cooperation with officials at all levels of government, especially the Senate and House of Representatives, even when we have disagreements,” Batton said.

Oral arguments considering whether or not the state of Oklahoma should have concurrent jurisdiction in cases like Roth’s will be heard by the U.S. Supreme Court in April.

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