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How to Get Away With Murder in Yellowstone National Park

In 2005, a Michigan State law professor published a paper in a law journal where he described a way to commit the perfect crime and get away with it. His article got a lot of attention, because unlike a lot of fictional crime stories with “perfect crimes”, the scenario that law professor Brian C. Kalt described was real and very much possible.

Prof. Kalt’s perfect crime takes place within a 50-square mile area dubbed the “zone of death” situated atop America’s famous supervolcano, the Yellowstone National Park. Inside this lawless oasis, one can commit any major crime, such as homicide, freely admit to it, and still get off scot-free. Here’s how it works:

yellowstone-zone-of-death

The vast majority of Yellowstone National Park is situated in the state of Wyoming. However, the northernmost and westernmost parts of the park spill over the border into the adjoining states of Montana and Idaho. This is where the opportunity lies, thanks to a poorly drafted statute in the Sixth Amendment of the US Constitution.

Let us imagine a man killing someone in the Idaho section of the park. He is arrested, arraigned and taken to Wyoming—under which the jurisdiction of the park falls—to be tried. However, because the US Constitution demands that any trial should be held in the state where the crime itself was committed, the man successfully convinces the authorities to take him to Idaho instead. While standing before the judge in an Idaho courtroom, he pulls out his trump card—the Sixth Amendment. The Amendment states that every criminal should have a fair trial before an impartial jury drawn from the state and district where the crime was committed. This should have been straightforward, but not in the case of Yellowstone National Park. You see, when Yellowstone was created, the entire park was placed in the federal district of Wyoming, including the parts in Montana and Idaho. So while the state where the crime was committed is Idaho, the district—strangely—is Wyoming

This means that the jury must be drawn from people living within the boundaries of the Yellowstone National Park in Idaho. Fortunately for the defendant, no one lives in the Idaho section of Yellowstone. Since a jury cannot be formed it is impossible to try the man for his crime. So theoretically, the man walks free.

The Zone of Death was put to the test once, shortly after Kalt announced its existence. A hunter illegally shot an elk within the Montana portion of Yellowstone. The hunter used Kalt’s argument in his defense hearing, demanding a jury consisting of people living in the state of Montana and the district of Wyoming. While people do live in that section, not many were qualified for jury duty, and it would have been very difficult, if not impossible, to form a full jury of twelve. Unfortunately, the court dismissed the argument, and the hunter took a plea deal rather than appealing the ruling.

A simple solution to the problem, according to Vox, would be to pass a law placing Idaho's portions of Yellowstone inside the District of Idaho. But the Congress doesn’t think the Zone of Death is a problem. The Department of Justice argued that trying someone in the wrong state or district amounts to a "harmless error", even if the “error” in question is a clear violation of one's Sixth Amendment. 

“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,” Brian Kalt wrote in his original paper. “Crime is bad, after all – but so is violating the Constitution. If the loophole described in this Essay does exist it should be closed, not ignored.”

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