Yellowstone National Park, although mighty beautiful, is a whole lot of trouble. On top of its ferocious wildlife and deadly volcanic hot springs, this natural wonderland also features a legal no man's land known as the “Zone of Death”.
This is a 130-square-kilometer (50-square-mile) slither of the park where you can technically get away with murder thanks to some fiddly jurisdictional boundaries and an unfortunate choice of wording.
The idea was first proposed in the 2005 paper "The Perfect Crime" by Brian C Kalt, a law professor at the Michigan State University College of Law. He explains that most of Yellowstone National Park is federal land that’s spread across Wyoming, however, a teeny portion of the park is in the states of Montana and Idaho. Despite its small overspill into two other states, Congress put the entire park under the jurisdiction of the district court of Wyoming.
And here’s where the problem lies. The Sixth Amendment clearly states that a federal criminal defendant has the right to a trial by a “jury of the state and district wherein the crime shall have been committed.”
So, if you were to commit murder in the thin portion of Idaho that Yellowstone sits on, then your trial must be held in Idaho. However, it would also mean that the jury is from the state – Idaho – and the district – Wyoming – in which the crime was committed. Kalt argues that this would render a constitutionally-sound trial impossible since no humans live in this cross-over area (although there’s probably a few wolves and bald eagles).
As for the Montana portion, there are actually a few dozen people living there, so it would be technically possible to form a jury, although it wouldn’t be easy.
That’s the theory at least, although Kalt warns that any plans to conduct a mad crime spree in the Idaho chunk of Yellowstone will most likely still land you in prison.
“First, nobody really pays much attention to vicinage. If anybody did, this gap would have been closed already, either by a court or by Congress,” Kalt concludes in his paper. “The courts may or may not agree that my loophole exists, and in any case, this Essay is not intended to inspire anyone to go out and commit crimes."
When Kalt first published his paper about the loophole, he suspected it would be promptly shut down by the powers that be. Nevertheless, some years have passed and they remain remarkably silent, or perhaps unconcerned, about the problem.
"Crime is bad, after all. But so is violating the Constitution," he wrote. "If the loophole described in this Essay does exist it should be closed, not ignored.”
The legal clanger has, however, inspired its fair share of cultural depictions, including a murder mystery novel and, of course, a Blair Witch-esque horror film.