There’s a fifty square mile stretch of Yellowstone National Park that has no roads, no residents, and most unusually, no legislation to charge anyone for any crime that may be committed there. Welcome to the Zone of Death, a place where you can legally get away with murder.
What makes this possible? Yellowstone National Park is federal land, and it was created in 1872, before Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho officially became US states. When the state lines were drawn, they were done so that the vast majority of the park is in Wyoming, but jurisdiction for the entire park was given to the state of Wyoming alone – even though parts of the park extend into the neighbouring states of Idaho and Montana. It’s the thin stretch of park land in Idaho that’s known as the Zone of Death, due to the legal loophole this situation has created.
The loophole is this: even though the state of Wyoming has federal jurisdiction over the Zone of Death, the Sixth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States specifies the right to a trial by jury composed of residents in the federal district and the state where the crime was committed. In other words, the jury has to be in Idaho — but only the portion of Idaho that falls under Wyoming’s jurisdiction, aka the Zone of Death. But it’s the Zone of Death – no one lives there. So a jury is just not possible. And no jury means no trial.
The same situation could also occur in Montana, where Yellowstone overlaps with the state – but there are at least a few residents there, so a jury could still possibly be formed. Idaho, with no residents in the Zone of Death, is the area of concern. And because it’s federal land, the states are not able to close the loophole themselves – that can be done only by the federal government.
This was brought to the attention of the federal government, and then the public, by Brian Kalt, a law professor at Michigan State University, in his paper “The Perfect Crime”, published in Georgetown Law Journal in 2005. The federal government ignored it. Despite making national media headlines and serving as inspiration for the novel Free Fire and the horror film Population Zero, the Zone of Death continues to exist to this day.
One has to wonder why, especially since, according to Kalt, the solution is simple: All it would take is for Congress to redraw the federal district lines so that Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho each has jurisdiction over its own respective state, instead of Wyoming holding sole and exclusive jurisdiction over all three. Wyoming would be Wyoming, Montana would be Montana, and Idaho would be Idaho. That seems to make sense, yet there’s no indication from the federal government of that happening anytime soon.
Still, it’s not recommended to use the Zone of Death loophole as a legal defense. A hunter who illegally shot an elk in Yellowstone tried to do just that in 2007, and based on Kalt’s paper, invoked his Sixth Amendment rights when the government tried him in the district of Montana. The judge simply threw out the defense, calling it a “harmless error” to move him to another, more populated district. Kalt maintains that this is a violation of constitutional rights and would be appealed in a higher-stakes case. But the hunter made a plea deal and loophole remains unresolved.
There are many theories as to why this situation is allowed to continue, and what crimes may be committed there, with some of the strongest material coming from the work of former police detective David Paulides. His research has documented hundreds of cases of people who have disappeared in national parks, including Yellowstone, yet strangely, these cases have received little or no attention from the media or the government.
Whatever is going on there, indeed, the Zone of Death seems to be appropriately named – and is clearly well-protected. Still, Yellowstone is famous for its natural beauty and diversity of wildlife, including its geysers, and receives millions of visitors per year.