Yellowstone’s “Zone of Death”

There’s a difference between book smart and bar smart. You may not be book smart, but this series can make you seem educated and interesting from a barstool. So, belly up, mix yourself a glass of LMNT Recharge, and take notes as we look at how you could literally get away with murder in Yellowstone. Powered by LMNT.

Yellowstone National Park was established in 1872, about two decades before Wyoming, Montana, or Idaho gained statehood. Thanks to rudimentary mapping and minor park expansions, Yellowstone’s boundaries oddly extend into all three states. Although 99% of the park is in Wyoming and Montana, it’s that 1% in Idaho that is arguably the most interesting.

That wasn’t known until 2005 when Michigan State law professor Brian Kalt published an article in the Georgetown Law Journal titled “The Perfect Crime.” Kalt’s paper argued that within the 50-square-mile stretch of Yellowstone inside Idaho, a person could commit felonies with impunity—including murder. The reason? Loopholes created by the Sixth Amendment and legal inattention.

It all starts with how crime is punished in Yellowstone. When Congress set up the United States District Court for the District of Wyoming in the 19th Century, they deemed all of Yellowstone as within Wyoming’s jurisdiction (including the parts that are in Montana and Idaho). This is the only court district in the country that covers multiple states.

“It must have seemed too much trouble to divide Yellowstone between Wyoming and two other districts, especially when crime was rampant in the park and going unpunished,” Kalt wrote. “Therefore, in a constitutionally fateful decision, Congress put the entire park in the District of Wyoming.”

yellowstone national park zone of death
Map of Yellowstone National Park. The Zone of Death is in the southwest corner.

So, what would happen if you committed a murder in the “Zone of Death?” Well, first you’d probably be shipped 470 miles southeast to Cheyenne—the state capital and hub of the District Court of Wyoming. Then your lawyer would invoke the Sixth Amendment, which guarantees the right to a speedy and public trial.

“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,” reads Article III, Section 2 of the Constitution.

Here’s what all that means: Court would need to be held in the state where you committed the crime (Idaho), but also technically in the district where you committed the crime (Wyoming). This creates a tight Venn diagram where you can only be tried within the 50-square-mile section of Yellowstone that’s in Idaho.

And due to the Vicinage Clause, a provision in the Sixth Amendment, you’d have the right to request a jury from that exact area. Now here’s the kicker: Not a single person lives there.

“The Constitution entitles you to a jury trial and an impartial jury of inhabitants of the state and district where the crime was committed,” Kalt wrote. “The U.S. Code steps on the rusty nail; it makes it impossible to satisfy both provisions in the case of the Yellowstone State-Line Strangler. Assuming that you do not feel like consenting to trial in Cheyenne, you should be free to go.”

Dunanda Falls, the most popular destination in southwest Yellowstone, lies just outside of the Zone of Death.

This legal pickle doesn’t exist in the rest of park. According to the most recent census data, about 2,000 adults live in the Wyoming portion of Yellowstone and 40 adults in the Montana portion of Yellowstone.

Although Kalt brought attention to the issue 15 years ago, the government has been slothish to act on it. It’s not from a lack of awareness; Kalt’s article on the perfect crime was covered by Vox and The National Enquirer and even inspired a New York Times best-selling book. Wyoming native C.J. Box used the Zone of Death as the backdrop for his mystery novel “Free Fire,” where an attorney slaughters four campers in a remote corner of Yellowstone with no legal jurisdiction.

“This is a change Congress could make in five minutes,” Kalt told MeatEater. “At this point, I’d be pretty pissed off if something happened like a murder. The main thing I’d be pissed off about is that all the times I’ve brought this up, people have said it isn’t a problem. They say we don’t need to worry about this or that it’ll never happen. And if it does happen, they think they’ll be able to get a conviction anyway. That’s no way to treat the Constitution.”

The Zone of Death is more popular now than it’s ever been. For those that seek little-known landmarks, like the furthest you can get from a McDonald’s or the world’s biggest collection of antlers, this has become a trendy destination. The website Atlas Obscura lists the area as one of Yellowstone’s best “unusual attractions,” with 100 users saying they’ve been there and another 392 saying they’d like to visit.

“I’d just stay the hell away,” Kalt said.

Feature graphic by Hunter Spencer.

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