Imagine a place where it is possible to get away with murder — legally. We’re not talking about walking away from a crime that is so fiendishly executed by a criminal mastermind that it is never discovered. Rather than be dependent upon the criminal abilities of the perpetrator, crime could happen without fear of punishment because it is a land of lawlessness.
If such a place existed, where would it be? Some remote, undiscovered island? A no-man’s-land of political anarchy? Does this possibility even exist in this civilized world?
Would you believe such a place does exist? It is known as the Zone of Death. If you want to go there, you will find it in the United States of America.
The Zone of Death is a 50-square-mile (129.50 km2 ) section of land within Yellowstone National Park and the state of Idaho.
“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….”
Yellowstone National Park covers 3,472 square miles (8,922 km2). The vast majority of it is within the state of Wyoming, but 260 square miles (674 km2) are in Montana, and 50 square miles (129.5 km2) are in Idaho. Although three states lay claim to portions of the park, it is federal property. That means the federal government has exclusive jurisdiction over it, and any crimes committed therein are prosecuted within the federal court.
The entirety of Yellowstone National Park rests within one district: the United States District Court for the District of Wyoming. It is the only district that crosses state borders.
This means that the prosecution of any crime committed within the park would need to be handled at the federal courthouse in Cheyenne, Wyoming, even if the crime occurred on the Idaho or Montana portion of the park.
Because of the Sixth Amendment’s guarantee of the right to be tried by a jury consisting of impartial individuals from the state and district where the crime was committed, it is important to consider which portion of Yellowstone National Park is the site of any alleged crime. If the offense takes place on the Idaho side, the trial will still take place in Cheyenne, but the jury must be composed of individuals who are residents not only of the district but also of the state of Idaho.
That’s where the Zone of Death comes in.
The southwestern-most portion of Yellowstone National Park covers a strip of Idaho that is about 2 miles wide and 25 miles long. Within this 50-square-mile piece of real estate, there are no human residents. This means that if a crime were to be committed in this sliver of territory, it would not be possible to legally impanel a jury. While it would be possible to find 12 prospective jurors from the district or the state, it would not be possible to find ones who are residents of both, as the Constitution requires.
The Zone of Death was discovered by Michigan State University law professor Brian C. Kalt. In researching potential legal loopholes involving the Sixth Amendment, Kalt tried to envision a place where the constitutional requirements for impaneling a jury could not be met. Much to his surprise and alarm, that place was not theoretical.
He published his findings in an article entitled “The Perfect Crime” in the Georgetown Law Journal in 2005. Initially concerned that criminals would take advantage of this knowledge, Kalt was reluctant to tell the world about it. He concluded that it was necessary to get lawmakers to correct the problem.
Thus far, no one appears to have attempted a murder in this zone of lawlessness, but there has been one case where the constitutional issue was raised. Michael David Belderrain was charged with the unlawful killing of an elk in 2005. The incident occurred on the Montana portion of the park, rather than the Idaho Zone of Death. Even so, with only 40 Montana residents in that part of the district, Belderrain argued he would not be able to enjoy the right to a fair and impartial jury.
After appeals and legal maneuvers, he ultimately took a plea agreement, part of which was a promise not to take the matter to a higher court for a precedent-setting decision.
The fix to all of this would be for Congress to change the boundaries of the district to stop at state lines. Crimes committed on a national park would still be under the jurisdiction of the federal courts, but the federal district court for the appropriate state would have a much larger pool of potential jurors. To date, however, this does not seem to be a pressing issue for members of Congress.
For the time being, you might want to stay away from the Zone of Death — particularly if someone who seems to have a beef with you is very insistent upon wanting to show you “this really cool narrow piece of Yellowstone National Park on the Idaho side.”