Seven years after the ending of the American Civil War the commanding general of the Union army, Ulysses S. Grant, would be president and sign into law the United States first national park. Three states comprise Yellowstone Park with the largest part being Wyoming, then Montana and the smallest in Idaho. Yellowstone National Park spans an area of 3,468.4 square miles. The park is home to grizzly bears, bison, wolves and elk, all of which can be very dangerous animals to interact with. We also don’t want to forget the Yellowstone caldera. It is the largest supervolcano on our continent. It powers all the geothermal features within the park including hot springs, mud pots and of course the geysers, like Old Faithful. Experts say that if it explodes people within a few dozen miles would probably perish. Places like Denver would be covered in about a foot of ash. Cities as far as Miami, New York and Toronto would be covered in a finer layer, which would be enough to make water unpotable and stop cars from running.
Nature can be both cruel and beautiful; our American laws can mirror them. In 2005 Michigan State law professor Brian Kalt penned an article in the Georgetown Law Journal entitled “The Perfect Crime.” It describes an area of Yellowstone of about 50 square miles where theoretically it is possible to get away with murder. This area has come to be known as the “Zone of Death”. Currently this legal loophole is still open even though the professor wrote to lawmakers a year before publishing the paper on the off chance that someone might take advantage of the situation there.
When congress wrote the bill to create the park they gave Wyoming the legal jurisdiction to prosecute any crimes committed within Yellowstone’s borders. The portions that are in Montana and Idaho also fall under the responsibility of Wyoming. The problem however is when this comes in conflict with our constitution and more specifically the sixth amendment.
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. -U.S constitution
If we focus on the part that describes where the impartial jury must come from you’ll notice that there are specific guidelines. They must come from the State where the crime was committed. Also they must come from the district where the crime was committed. This creates a very small Venn diagram only seen in this area if the country. So if you happen to commit a crime heinous enough to require a jury trial, your jury would need to be pulled from people who live in that small stretch of land because they are the only ones who would fit these criteria. This shouldn’t really be a problem for the portion of the park that falls in Montana because there are more than a dozen people living there making it possible to create a jury of twelve. The Idaho portion of the park however is completely uninhabited. Since there is no one that both lives in Idaho and falls under Wyoming’s jurisdiction, effectively you cannot have a jury of your peers and could possibly be let go of the crime.
There is even a novel called Free Fire written by author CJ Box that bases its premise on the idea of this “zone of death”. A Wyoming Senator, Mike Enzi, was a fan of Box’s work and after reading the novel asked the Department of Justice to look into the issue. Absolutely nothing came of it. No one seems to want to address this issue legally before it becomes a reality.
One case however did make it to court that actually cited professor Kalt’s article. Hunting or discharging of firearms are prohibited within Yellowstone park. Michael Belderrain illegally shot an elk in Montana in 2005 and tried to use the zone of death defense when his case came to court in 2007. He was in the Montana portion of the park when shooting the elk but was tried in Wyoming. The court dismissed his argument. Belderrain accepted a plea deal that specifically barred him from using that defense again. Otherwise, Belderrain could have appealed the court’s decision, which could have shed more light on those fifty square miles. Now we might never know if we have an area where it is legal to commit murder.