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It sounds like something from a science fiction novel. Or at least an area akin to the Bermuda Triangle. Surprisingly enough, it’s none of those.
Have you ever daydreamed about the perfect crime? Don’t answer that. Let’s pretend that you haven’t and are here reading about this region in Yellowstone Park, Wyoming, purely for research.
After all, it is pretty intriguing. To put it in straightforward terms, this so-called Zone of Death in Yellowstone National Park in the United States of America is a 50-square-mile area with a legal loophole in which a criminal could theoretically get away with murder.
The keyword here is theoretically. Of course, it’s a legal theory loophole, and these things are never as simple as they seem, so maybe don’t go killing people there just yet (or, you know, ever).
Before we go into details of this fascinating thought experiment, let’s get a little background to help us make sense of it.
21 Facts About the Zone of Death
1. Yellowstone National Park is one of the 63 national parks in the United States of America. The USA is famed worldwide for its natural beauty, and national parks add to this appeal. These national parks are Congressionally designated protected areas. They are regulated by a subsect of the Department of Interior, the National Park Service.
Yellowstone Park is almost 3,500 square miles and rests atop a volcanic hot spot. The area has its fair share of picturesque canyons, mountains, refreshing rivers, luxuriant forests, and vast wildlife, including elk (we’ll return to this animal a little later), grizzly bears, and wolves. These features make this incredible park a favorite for tourists and citizens alike.
So, where is Yellowstone National Park? Now, here’s where it gets a little tricky. You may also love Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming if you love the place.
2. The central part of this park is situated firmly in Wyoming – to be precise, 96% of it. 3% lies in Montana, while the Idaho portion is 1% or 50 square miles.
Remember, these refer to Montana, Idaho, and Wyoming. The districts of Wyoming, Idaho, and Montana are different cases. See what I meant about it getting tricky? The states and districts of Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho are different, but only slightly.
The district of Wyoming consists of the state of Wyoming and the entirety of Yellowstone National Park. This includes the part of the park located in Idaho and Wyoming. Meanwhile, the district of eastern Idaho is the state of Idaho, minus the area inside Yellowstone National Park. The same goes for the community of Montana.
3. Yellowstone National Park expands over three states but only one district. Moreover, the district of Wyoming is the only one to cover multiple states. Yellowstone was the world’s first national park to be established, so there was no precedent for dividing the entire park into districts and states.
With the 435 districts in the USA, voting representatives like Colin Nash are elected to the House of Representatives and House Joint Memorial. These elections are based on decennial population counts. The point of the congressional districts is to ensure representation based on population. Still, prior experience forming sections should have alerted officials to possible problems with the allocation.
Source: Shutterstock4. The 6th Amendment of the US Constitution states that “In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of both the district and state wherein the crime shall have been committed, which district shall have been previously ascertained by law…”.
The problem is getting a little clearer now.
Let me take an example for ease of explanation. James and his friend Matthew are on vacation in Yellowstone National Park. While wandering and exploring, they end up in the Idaho state portion and decide to rest for a while. At this point, Matthew starts teasing James about something or the other – say, his inability to grow a mustache, perhaps? – and James, in a fit of rage, kills Matthew.
James is arrested and goes to the federal courthouse to face prosecution. There, he invokes his right to a constitutionally legitimate jury composed of people from the state and district where the federal crime was committed, as stated in the Sixth Amendment. Well, okay, what’s the problem with that?
5. Just that no one – not a single person – lives in the 50 square mile area that overlaps the state of Idaho and the District of Wyoming. No person, no jury. No jury, the criminal walks free.
6. Michigan State University law professor Brian C. Kalt discovered this loophole in the law.
7. It was brought to attention in his 2005 Georgetown Law Journal article, ‘The Perfect Crime.’ Since its publication on March 25, 2005, it has amassed thousands of downloads. In this article, Kalt talks about this aptly named ‘Constitutional rusty nail.’ He outlines the history behind the need for local jurors for a trial. He also highlights the importance of the venue, where the crime takes place, and vicinage, as in where the jury hails from.
8. In the early American colonies, a law persisted that allowed British soldiers to be taken back to England for trial after killing colonists in the US.
9. This led to the framing of Article III, Section 2, which states, “the Trial of all Crimes . . . shall be by Jury, and such Trial shall be held in the State where the said Crimes shall have been committed.”
Later, it was acknowledged that while this allowed for a local trial, it did not give provisions for a local jury, too, so the Sixth Amendment came into place. Kalt also outlines two probable arguments that could be put forth during the trial for allowing prosecution.
10. The first one requires us to understand a precedent case, Cook v. the United States, in 1888. In this, a group killed four people in a No-Mans-Land, that is to say, an area that was not part of any state. This zone was later assigned to the Eastern District of Texas.
The murderers argued that this breached their Article III and Sixth Amendments during the trial. However, that murder spree took place in no state; the remainder of Article III would be called into force. This proclaims – “The Trial shall be at such Place or Places as the Congress may by Law have directed.” Since the Sixth Amendment calls for a vicinage from the ‘district and state,’ it would no longer be applicable, and Congress’s discretion would become foremost.
Back to the Zone of Death – can this argument be applied here? After all, Yellowstone National Park is a federal enclave, so no state law is applicable here. Idaho and Montana have given the federal government exclusive jurisdiction inside the Yellowstone National Park portion.
Well, Brian Kalt puts forth points that make this answer a no.
11. He points out that the Zone of Death is in a state, that is, the state of Idaho. Despite having exclusive jurisdiction under the federal government, the fact that the land is part of a state does not change. This is proven by the definition of the district of Idaho, which is “Idaho, exclusive of Yellowstone National Park.”
This indicates that the Zone of Death is in a state, so the precedent set by Cook v. the United States is void. Another action can be taken for prosecution – they can change the district. But this, too, is not as easy as it sounds, and Brian Kalt has made points to dismiss this argument in his article in the Georgetown Law Journal.
12. There have been no murder cases or any significant cases that have taken place in this area, despite the popularity that this thought experiment has gained. For that, we can be thankful.
13. However, there was one case in which a crime was committed in the Montana portion of Yellowstone, and Kalt’s article was cited in his defense. In December 2005, Mike Belderrain illegally shot an elk in Montana while standing in Yellowstone and shifted the elk’s head to a truck in Yellowstone. Because of this action, he was indicted by the US District Court in the District of Wyoming. During his trial in December 2007, Belderrain put forth the point that he had a right to a jury trial composed of jurors situated in the Montana portion of Yellowstone.
14. While it would be challenging to summon such a jury, it can be done. There is no Zone of Death in the Montana portion, as people inhabit it. Despite this, the court dismissed the argument and outright ignored Article III of the Constitution, which provides for the right of the trial to occur in the state of crime – in this case, Montana.
15. Mike Belderrain took a plea deal that barred him from appealing this particular issue in front of the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals. For this plea deal, he received a sentence of four years instead of the seven years he most likely would have received in a jury trial.
What Is Being Done to Fix This?
Fact #16. There is a possible solution to make the Idaho part of Yellowstone be included in the district of Idaho legislature and the Montana part of it in Montana. Professor Kalt of Michigan State University attempted to get this action taken by Congress, to no avail.
Fact #17. Before publishing his paper, Brian Kalt informed the Department of Justice, the House and Senate Judiciary Committees, and the US Attorney for Wyoming of the loophole. However, even after being alerted to the issue, no action was taken except for a reply from the US Attorney that it wasn’t in his power to change the law.
After the article’s release, officials, including Senator Larry Craig, promised to look into the issue (but nothing came of it), and others thought it wasn’t a problem.
Fact #18. Eventually, a book was released named ‘Free Fire,’ written by CJ Box. This is the seventh book in the Joe Pickett series.
The plot follows a lawyer who commits four murders – called the free-fire zone in the book – and walks free due to a loophole in the law. Luckily enough, the book brought the issue to the attention of Senator Mike Enzi, a long-time fan of the authors.
Senator Enzi requested the Department of Justice to look into the Zone of Death, but they deduced that no fix was necessary. They also said that it was a ‘harmless error,’ which was a point that both Enzi and Kalt disagreed with, as violating the Sixth Amendment would not be a mere error.
Fact #19. The Department of Justice offered a more valid point: allocating the Idaho and Montana parts of Yellowstone to the Idaho and Montana districts, respectively, would cause Yellowstone to be split into the Ninth and Tenth Circuits. Circuits are regional divisions under the United States Federal Courts system.
Because of this division into different Circuits, there was a fear that environmentalists could exploit it, which would cause a burden. Kalt was wary of this reasoning, too – he believed that the Tenth Circuit could be assigned to all administrative appeals concerning Yellowstone.
Senator Jim Rosch’s press secretary Suzanne Wrasse stated that the Senator was not worried about the loophole as the small area has a minimal crime rate. Moreover, she assumed that dual jurisdiction of the state would still be applicable, but this is not the case.
Yellowstone National Park is under a federal judicial district. As Kalt pointed out, the state cannot prosecute federal criminal cases committed entirely in the park spills.
Officials are seemingly too busy with other issues to focus. It is a risk to leave this loophole looming, ready, and wait for a murderer to exploit it.
Although no one has attempted to take advantage of it yet, we cannot speak for the future. As the adage goes, prevention is better than cure.
So… You Can Commit Crimes in The Zone of Death?
No. Well, yes, you can, but not without consequences.
20. The loophole can only apply to cases requiring a jury trial. That means that cases with a potential sentence of fewer than six months can still be punished. Moreover, civil suits can be filed by victims of crimes committed against the criminal.
21. Law professor Kalt has also pointed out that you can still be prosecuted for actions you took before the crime in other parts of the state. These can include actions as minor as buying supplies or convincing people to join you. There is also always the solution of having jurors move into the Idaho portion of Yellowstone that constitutes a jury. However, this will come with problems, so it is not ideal.
It has been popularized and sensationalized. It has also been receiving more attention recently with the case of the missing influencer Gabby Petito. There have been podcasts such as The Experiment, which have covered this zone, books such as Free Fire based on it, Instagram and Facebook posts, and news articles.
The one case that has been tried that attempted to bring forth Kalt’s points shows us that the trial of any such crime would probably be held in Wyoming, ignoring the Constitutional liabilities this brings forth.
Despite popular belief, the Zone of Death is not a place where ‘murder is legal,’ or you can commit murder or another crime and get off scot-free. It is a very interesting thought experiment and a possible loophole that warrants further action.