What happens in Yellowstone stays in Yellowstone, right? While hundreds of thousands of Instagrams and family photos might indicate otherwise, in one remote 50-square-mile swath of the park you can get away with murder–and nobody, not the state or federal government, can prosecute you for it.
In 2005, a Michigan State University law professor named Brian Kalt sent a warning to the House and Senate judiciary committees, the Department of Justice, and the U.S. Attorney in Wyoming. While researching jurisdictional grey areas, he had discovered an anomaly that could provide impunity to murderers, rapists, and other felons, so long as they confined their deviancies to the portion of Yellowstone that falls in Idaho.
About to publish a paper in Georgetown Law Journal about what he dubbed the “Zone of Death,” Kalt wanted to ensure lawmakers had the chance to close this loophole before someone took advantage of it. They have yet to do so.
Yellowstone spans Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho, with the bulk of the nearly 3,500-square-mile park in Wyoming. It was designated a national park, and thus federal land, in 1872 before any of the three regions officially became states. Thus, when each was inducted into the union they ceded jurisdiction of crimes in the park to the federal government. This is where things get a little hairy.
Rather than split the park into three separate districts, corresponding with the newly minted state borders, Congress expanded the jurisdictional district of Wyoming across state borders in an effort to simplify the process. It is the only district in the United States to span multiple states, and for good reason: In doing so, it defies the Constitution.
The Sixth Amendment ensures our right to trial by jury–a jury “of the State and district wherein the crime shall have been committed.” That poses a problem for the Idaho portion of Yellowstone, which is uninhabited. The courts could not assemble a jury from the remainder of Idaho–it’s a different district–nor could they do so from Wyoming–it’s a different state, obviously.
The prospect of committing a heinous crime with impunity can be incredibly alluring, at least in fiction (see The Purge). So much so, in fact, that Kalt named his initial paper about the Zone of Death “The Perfect Crime.”
The report inspired a 2007 novel, Free Fire, in which a sadistic lawyer terrorizes Yellowstone campers and rangers with his legal know-how and murderous tendencies. Despite the chilling narrative illustrating the possible implications of the judicial oversight, as well as multiple murders in other national parks, Congress has yet to take action. In a recent interview with Vice, Kalt expressed his belief that Congress would wait until an actual incident before making any effort to zip up the loophole, and by then it of course would be too late for the first victim.
To date, nobody has taken advantage of the sloppy and unconstitutional boundaries. A crime would have to fit a narrow set of bounds to fit neatly into the loophole–it couldn’t have been planned outside the bounds of Zone of Death, or the perpetrator could be charged with conspiracy to commit murder in the respective state. It’s also an incredibly hard-to-reach area of the park, which makes it a tough spot to carry out any kind of crime.
Or, one could argue, its remoteness is precisely why it’s ideal.
Photo by Jeremy Thies