By Sue Coletta
A few nights ago, my husband and I watched Population Zero, a documentary-style movie based on the alleged true account of a murderer who walked free after confessing to a triple homicide.
In the documentary, the killer even videotaped the murders and summoned this documentarian (our hero) to find the motive behind his killing spree. To entice him, he sent a photo of a bear chasing a horrifically burned buffalo — a symbolic message for the murders he committed in Yellowstone National Park.
The entire ninety-minutes shocked me, not only because a loophole in our constitution allowed a murderer to walk free but because of the explosive ending (no spoilers). It also made me suspicious. I thought, you mean to tell me an entire sheriff’s department couldn’t unravel the mystery but a film-maker cracked the case in a matter of days?
Don’t get me wrong, it’s a good movie. True story? Ah, not so much. The legal loophole, however, is real. Within the United States there’s a stretch of land where you could, in theory, get away with murder. Fact.
How Is This Possible?
Most of Yellowstone National Park is in Wyoming, but a portion of the federal land extends into Montana and Idaho. That’s where the problem begins. The 50 square miles of Idaho’s section of the national park is called The Zone of Death, and it’s because of a loophole in the U.S. Constitution. If, like in the documentary-style movie, someone committed a spontaneous murder on that 50 square mile strip, the U.S. Constitution may be their ticket to freedom.
Here’s why. Yellowstone National Park is federal land that was established in 1872, years before the three states. Montana joined the union in 1889, Idaho and Wyoming in 1890. Across the United States federal land is split-up and divided into its corresponding state and district courts. Yellowstone National Park is the only exception.
In 2005, Brian C. Kalt, a law professor at Michigan State University of Law, published a paper entitled The Perfect Crime, where he pointed out that all of Yellowstone National Park was assigned to the District of Wyoming. But now, the District of Wyoming includes land in other states. So, Kalt asked the question, “What happens if you’re caught for a crime within that 50 square miles of the Idaho region of the park?”
The first thing LEO’s would do is bring you to the District Court of Wyoming, because the crime happened within Wyoming’s jurisdiction. But Article III, Section 2 of the U.S. Constitution states: 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; but when not committed within any state, the trial shall be a such place or places as the Congress may be law have directed.
A smart killer, like the one depicted in Population Zero, could assert his right to have his case heard in Idaho. No big deal, right? Well, not exactly.
Amendment VI states: 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.
This is called the Vicinage Clause.
Picture two overlapping circles, with Wyoming (the District) on one side and Idaho (the State) on the other. Where these two circles intersect is that 50 square miles of Idaho land. The legal loophole exists because it has a population of zero. No humans live there, therefore, no jury can be called. Kalt argues, the court must let you walk free to avoid violating your Sixth Amendment rights.
“The more I dug into it, the more interested I got,” Kalt told Vice. “People have this fascination with uncovering a loophole for the perfect crime. There are a lot of different approaches to it. But in terms of geography, there’s just this one spot.”
Kalt proposed numerous solutions to Congress, but they have yet to act. In Kalt’s words, “All they have to do is redraw the district lines so that the District of Wyoming is Wyoming, the District of Idaho is Idaho, and the District of Montana is Montana. And if they do that, this all goes away.”
In Population Zero, the hero set out to prove the killer had preplanned the murder. If so, he could be tried in the district court where the murder was planned. But in the confession, the killer stated that one of the victims started a fight, and he just snapped. In which case, there’s nothing within the law that let’s the court hold him accountable. All events happened within The Zone of Death. Therefore, he walks.
I know what you’re all thinking. What a fantastic plot for a novel! Sorry, folks. C.J. Box beat us to it with his 2007 thriller, Free Fire. I should also mention the author tried to fight Congress to close the loophole but no one wants to acknowledge its existence. The only way it’ll happen is if someone dies within The Zone of Death.
The loophole also inspired a 2016 horror film with the same title as the documentary-style movie, Population Zero. Although, I don’t recall the legalities being mentioned.
Has the Loophole Ever Been Tested?
In 2005, a hunter illegally shot an elk. When he fired he was standing in the Montana section of the park. Authorities indicted him in Wyoming. He successfully argued he had a right to be tried by jurors from Montana, and while people do live in that section, there are too few residents to call a legitimate jury. The court dismissed the argument out of hand, simply because it would imply that Yellowstone National Park contained a Zone of Death.
I’ll leave you with this: the Buffalo Campground, a popular tourist destination with a gorgeous lake and some of the best fishing for miles, is located within The Zone of Death. If you feel lucky, why not add it to your summer vacation plans. Any takers? 🙂
Have you seen Population Zero or read Free Fire? What do you think of this legal loophole? Let’s discuss.
I haven’t seen the movie or read the book, but these types of things are absolutely fascinating. It kind of reminds me of the movie “Double Jeopardy” where a woman is convicted of killing her husband, but (Spoiler Alert) it turns out he staged the whole thing and set her up. When she gets out of prison and finds out he’s still alive, she plans to kill him. Since you can’t try a person twice for the same crime, the thought is that she’s got a free shot at him.
Thanks for sharing, Sue. I’ll add the movie to my “must watch” list.
Loved Double Jeopardy, Tom! I wrote a post on my blog that dealt with a loophole in the law that allowed a murderer to be tried AFTER double jeopardy was applied. Fascinating case. If you’re interested, you can find it here: https://www.suecoletta.com/eastburn-murders-expose-a-loophole-in-the-law/
Ugh. That was hard to read. Interesting case, but glad they got the guy!
I am, too, Tom. Yeah, it isn’t a happy story. Probably should have warned you. Sorry about that. The plethora of armchair detectives in the comment section were a nightmare to deal with, as well. Every time I focus on a case Discovery ID features it in their latest crime show. Never fails.
Hey, maybe ID should be paying you some sort of finder’s fee?
And yeah, not a happy story, but I didn’t expect it would be. Always tough when kids are involved. Thanks, Sue.
Ha! If only … 🙂
I knew as soon as I saw the title of this post in my inbox that you wrote this, Sue. I couldn’t wait to read it, and I wasn’t disappointed. What a fascinating loophole! Frightening, but intriguing. Great post.
Haha! You know me so well. Thanks, Staci. I’m fascinated by this legal loophole, too.
I have not read the book or seen the show but I will add the book to my ever growing TBR list, lol. I find this kind of stuff utterly fascinating. I am amazed that something like this is still around. One would think with all the possible scenarios of misdeeds that could come out of a situation like this that the government would take action and make the necessary corrections within the system to prevent any future problems. And you kind of have to wonder if this area is well known, what kinds of things may already be hidden within this void. What mysteries that land holds… Kind of creepy to think about. I would definitely not want to vacation in a place like that, but my curious mind and all…I would not mind a quick visit. This was great, thanks for sharing Sue!
Hahahaha. I had the same though, Denise! If I only stopped by, what could it hurt? The campground is too much of a lure for curious minds.
Both Kalt and Box have tried numerous times to fight Congress on this issue to no avail. It’s mind-boggling that this loophole still exists, and no one in government seems to care.
LOL, yep! Curiosity killed the cat…just sayin’! My luck that would be my case. Since no one seems to care there is probably some sicko sitting in wait for all the curiosity seekers just waiting to strike. It is truly fascinating and scary at the same time.
Hahahaha! No doubt.
I did not know this area existed. Sounds like something a crime writer would make up, plausible but SURELY not real. And yet it is real, hunh. I’m a little scared, won’t be hiking through that area any time soon in case a disturbed person gets some dangerous ideas.
Hahaha. Right? I’ve always wanted to go to Yellowstone Park, but I’ll be sure to bring a GPS to make sure I don’t camp in The Death Zone. The animals must be like, “Whoa. Almost stepped into Idaho.”
The loophole will probably be closed after someone “important” is murdered there. Love your posts.
Right? Sadly, someone needs to die in order to fix this. Aw, thanks, Laurie!
Interesting treatment and great story implicating the legal/constitutional problems that Congress could apparently solve explicitly. Here’s a local news article that discusses the case you discussed and the U.S. District Court ruling that permitted the criminal case in question to proceed:
As noted, a later plea agreement in that case meant no final resolution was reached, The Supreme Court, the final arbiter on the interpretation of the Constitution in specific cases, if there were appeals, would have to decide, if Congress doesn’t act in the meantime.
If I were a prosecutor, I would argue that the Court could interpret the law passed by Congress to create Wyoming as the the federal judicial district covering Yellowstone not as an unconstitutional Congressional action on jury selection, but as impliedly intended to include selection of Wyoming jurors under the circumstances, so as comply with not only the letter but the spirit of the Constitution. The key rationale is that the defendant’s constitutional rights to a jury of his peers are reasonably protected, even if the jurors aren’t from Idaho. I believe there is ample Supreme Court precedent for that approach to Constitutional law; namely, that if there is a way to interpret a law as being in compliance with the intent of the Constitution, Courts will do that, partly in deference to the separation of powers and recognition of Congress as one of the three independent branches of government.
I admit to not being an expert in this area of the law, so I wouldn’t put any money on my interpretation.
Your argument sounds reasonable, David. Let’s hope a prosecutor never needs to use it, because I fear the outcome. It seems ridiculous to me that Congress won’t change the wording in the Constitution to fix this loophole, especially since it’s not a secret anymore.
Agreed. Ridiculous is exactly right. Maybe this situation exemplifies why Congress’s approval has consistently been in the teens in recent years.
As a lover of irony, I’d have one of the victim’s family members lure the killer to the same area and blow his brains out.
Ha! An eye for an eye would take pre-planning. Therefore, they would stand trial. Crazy, right?
Enjoying your posts very much, Sue—usually along with a cup of Sweet & Spicy Good Earth tea.
Ooh, sounds delicious, Joanne. Thank you for the kind words!
Sue, you are such a great addition to the Killzone team!
Aww, you are so sweet, Linda. Thank you!
Fascinating, Sue! I’m sharing this one.
Thank you, Ann!
This would have to be a crime of passion though, right? Anything premeditated would be tried by federal courts because the crime took place on federal grounds, or am I wrong about that? I’m certainly no attoeney. The seems to negate the loophole, through, if true.
Yes. That’s exactly right, Logan. Any premeditation would render the legal loophole null and void. The suspect would then be tried in the state and district where s/he planned the murder.
This is an amazing story! You always have the coolest material, Sue. xx
Thank you, Laura. Means a lot. xo