There is a small 50 square-mile area of Yellowstone National Park where a person could legally get away with murder due to an unusual loophole in federal policy. Despite being informed of the potentially deadly loophole, Congress has repeatedly declined to take any action to rectify the issue.
The aptly named “Zone of Death” in Yellowstone National Park is located in a small portion of the national park that spills over into Idaho. Vice reports that the “Zone of Death” gained national attention when Michigan State University law professor Brian Kalt wrote a 14-page paper in the Georgetown Law Journal called “The Perfect Crime.” In the research paper, Kalt noted that he stumbled across a small portion of Yellowstone National Park that had sloppy jurisdictional boundaries, which could result in the state and federal government’s inability to prosecute major crimes, such as murder, taking place in the small area.
Kalt notes that the loophole occurs due to the federal government’s designation of Yellowstone National Park as a Wyoming federal district. This means that all crimes committed in the park would fall under Wyoming federal district jurisdiction, but given that portions of the park fall in Idaho and Montana, this could cause a constitutional issue with prosecuting those who commit crimes in the small 50 square-mile portion of the park in Idaho.
Yellowstone has a 50 sq mile “Zone of Death” where you can get away with murder https://t.co/Uvjb9S0npk Interesting from a legal standpoint.
— Lucas Witherspoon (@LucasLascivious) July 7, 2016
The law professor points out that the portion of Idaho would prove nearly impossible to prosecute an individual for murder, rape, or other serious crimes due to Article III of the Constitution, which requires federal trials to be held in the state which they were committed. With the federal jurisdiction of Yellowstone falling in Wyoming only, crimes committed anywhere in the park would be tried in Wyoming. However, if the crime occurred in the Idaho portion of the park, legally the defendant would need to be tried in Idaho, thus causing the conflict.
“Kalt knew that Article III of the Constitution requires federal criminal trials to be held in the state in which the crime was committed.”
Additionally, the Sixth Amendment of the Constitution states that criminal defendants have the right to a trial by jury. The jurors must live in the state and district where the crime was committed. This presents a huge problem for prosecutors, as the Yellowstone district in Idaho is uninhabited. Therefore, there would be no jurors to pull from.
“The Sixth Amendment entitles a federal criminal defendant to a trial by jurors living in the state and district where the crime was committed. But if someone committed a crime in the uninhabited Idaho portion of Yellowstone, Kalt surmised, it would be impossible to form a jury.”
With the “Zone of Death” located on federal land, the state would have no jurisdiction over the area, meaning that the state could not take over the case. Therefore, it must be deduced that it would be impossible to prosecute any major crime that occurred in this portion of Yellowstone National Park.
“And being federal land, the state would have no jurisdiction. Here was a clear constitutional provision enabling criminal immunity in 50 square miles of America’s oldest national park.”
Kalt says that after researching the issue became concerned that someone may use his research to commit the “perfect crime.” Therefore, before publishing his paper, Kal sent copies of the research and a proposed fix to the Department of Justice, the US attorney in Wyoming, and the House and Senate judiciary committees. He noted that it would only require a three-line change in Yellowstone National Park legislative language to fix the loophole.
“It would be a simple fix, Kalt wrote, for Congress to divide Yellowstone into three federal districts—the Idaho portion going to Idaho, the Montana portion to Montana, and the Wyoming portion to Wyoming. He even drafted the legislation language. It was three lines long.”
However, to the surprise of Kalt, all government officials refused to make the changes, and his research paper was published. Despite the paper being published 11 years ago, government officials have yet to make appropriate changes to legislation to close the loophole, and the “Zone of Death” remains intact. Kalt notes that it would take a serious crime for legislators to take action and that at that point it may be too late for the first victim.
Kalt does point out that a crime in the uninhabited location would be difficult to commit, as the area has no roads and is only accessible via hiking. He notes that the person could not pre-plan the murder, or they could be tried in state of which they planned out the deadly deed, and that if any portion of the murder took place in another state, the person could be tried there.
Therefore, for the “perfect crime” to take place, a person would need to hike into the desolate area of Idaho and randomly, and without premeditation, kill someone else in the area. This means that the chances an unprosecutable murder taking place in the area is slim, Kalt says it is still possible and should be addressed. In fact, Kalt says he isn’t taking any chances and has declined visiting the area as he says that the “irony gods” would have too much fun with that scenario.
The area became a cult phenomena back in 2007 when suspense novelist C.J. Cox based a book, Free Fire, on the area showcasing the legal conundrum that would be presented should someone commit murder in the isolated area.
What do you think about Yellowstone’s “Zone of Death?” Will federal officials wait until the “perfect crime” is committed to take action?
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