Committing the Perfect Crime in Yellowstone’s Zone of Death
Is there a 50-square-mile stretch of Yellowstone National Park where there is no law?
When most people consider the perfect crime – academically, or for a work of fiction, of course – they think of one for which there’s no way to be caught. Or, if apprehended, they can’t be prosecuted. It would require meticulous planning, a complete lack of witnesses or evidence, or a clever legal loophole. Some believe they have found the latter in the Yellowstone Zone of Death.
The 50-square-mile area, in the Idaho section of Yellowstone National Park, theoretically provides a safe place to commit a crime. That’s because of the U.S. Constitution, and a series of jurisdictional entanglements, first exposed by law professor Brian Kult.
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As far as we know, no one has actually tried to get away with murder in this Zone of Death. Indeed, hardly anyone is even ever there. It isn’t named for a slew of heinous crimes, or for a single grisly murder. So why is this place called by that name? Because it just might be the only place in the United States where you can commit the perfect crime.
Theoretically, a killer could avoid the law, because in this stretch of land, it may not apply. We’ll talk about the legality of committing crimes in the Zone of Death later. But, first, what and where is this so-called Zone of Death, anyway?
What, and Where, Is Yellowstone’s Zone of Death?
It’s a sliver of land, really, created by the quirkiness of state borders. The region is 2 miles wide, and 25 miles long, starting below where Idaho, Montana and Wyoming meet. That’s roughly 50 square miles, or an area slightly larger than San Francisco.
Not a single established road runs through the Zone of Death. One of the few named features on the map is Buffalo Lake, beside which sits a cabin and unmaintained campsite. There are also a few small creeks with uninspired names like Boundary Creek.
Long story short, this is wilderness. Which is the point, of course. When Yellowstone National Park was established in 1872, 2.2 million acres was set aside to remain wild.
The Legal Loophole: A Constitutional Question
The Constitution of the United States is a wonderful document. It has proved strong enough to guide lawmakers and judges for nearly 250 years, while also being flexible enough to remain relevant. It’s far from a perfect document, however. Inevitably, there are situations its Framers could not have foreseen and, thus, are left unaddressed.
To understand the problem the Constitution left when it comes to the Yellowstone National Park Zone of Death, read Article III, Section 2: “The Trial of all Crimes, except in Cases of Impeachment, shall be by Jury; and such Trial shall be held in the State where the said Crimes shall have been committed.”
Note that the Constitution clearly stipulates that crimes must be tried by juries. Now take a look at another bit of language added to the Constitution a few years later.
The Sixth Amendment, added in 1791 as part of the Bill of Rights, reads: “In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the state and district wherein the crime shall have been committed, which district shall have been previously ascertained by law, and to be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation; to be confronted with the witnesses against him; to have compulsory process for obtaining witnesses in his favor, and to have the assistance of counsel for his defense.” (Italics have been added for emphasis.)
Put those together, and you have a legal obligation for a defendant to be tried in the state in which the crime was committed, and by a jury selected from that same “state and district.” That leads to a legal loophole. The problem? There are two, actually. First, the Zone of Death lies in Idaho, but the U.S. District Court for the District of Wyoming has legal purview over all of Yellowstone National Park – even those parts that lie in Idaho and Montana.
So, that’s problem one. You have an area that is technically under the auspices of two different parts of the government, so which has the actual authority. The second is that the Constitution clearly states juries must be comprised of members of the public that reside in “the state and district wherein the crime shall have been committed.” Even assuming legal experts could work out whether the Zone of Death was more properly a concern for the state of Idaho or the federal government, no one lives in that narrow strip of land just across the Idaho border. It would be impossible to select a jury from residents of the region, as there simply are none.
And if you can’t be properly tried by a jury for your crimes, then, theoretically, you can’t be tried at all.
The Gabby Petito Case
Had Gabby Petito’s life ended a few miles northwest of where it did, the history of the Zone of Death may have moved from the academic to the all too real.
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Petito was murdered by her fiancé, a Brian Laundrie, in late August 2021, as far as experts can tell. Her body was found in Grand Teton National Park, south of Yellowstone. However, it’s fully within Wyoming, and doesn’t cross state boundaries, thus freeing it of the legal complications of the Yellowstone Zone of Death.
Of course, Laundrie killed himself within two week’s of the murder. His body found in a wilderness preserve in Florida, near where the couple had lived. According to the FBI, Laundrie confessed to the murder in a notebook, found near his body.
What to Do About Yellowstone’s Zone of Death Dilemma
It’s highly unlikely anyone will travel to Yellowstone’s Zone of Death to commit a major crime. And even if they did, jurisdiction might fall to the place where they planned the crime.
However, the Zone of Death loophole has been raised in court, in a crime as relatively mundane as poaching. In 2005, Michael Belderrain illegally shot an elk in Montana, and then attempted to use Kalt’s loophole as his 2007 defense. Because he was within Yellowstone when he committed the crime, Belderrain was indicted in the U.S. District for Wyoming. However, he demanded to be tried by jurors from Montana. The court dismissed the Sixth Amendment argument, and Belderrain ultimately took a plea deal. Therefore, the Zone of Death loophole went untested.
But Brian Kalt proposes what should be a relatively easy way to clear up the murky matter: Congress can pass a law declaring Idaho’s portion of Yellowstone National Park as part of the U.S. District Court for the District of Idaho. Loophole would then be closed, and Yellowstone’s Zone of Death would be no more.
Thus far, however, there’s been no congressional action on the matter.