The Yellowstone Zone of Death

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This episode was recorded and written before the devastating flooding in Yellowstone. Please donate here to help Montana small towns affected by the floods.

Yellowstone is a beautiful place. Dangerous, but beautiful. When you hear the phrase “Yellowstone Zone of Death,” you probably think of the dozens of stories of people who never made it out of the first national park with their lives. 

And there have been a lot of people who met their fate in Yellowstone. The hot springs underneath the ground have taken the lives of people unlucky enough to try sitting in pools that are just below boiling in temperature. 

The book Death in Yellowstone by Lee Whittlesty details more ways deaths happened in Yellowstone. The author details deaths from cave-ins, avalanches, poisonous plants, and animal attacks (please don’t ever try to pet the Buffalo in Yellowstone, y’all.) Recently, a girl by the name of Gabby Petito was found dead in the Grand Tetons, the mountain range that borders Yellowstone. 

Today’s topic very well could be about the deaths experienced in the Yellowstone National Park, but that’s not what the Yellowstone Zone of Death really is.

Shonda Rhymes has a show on TV about how to get away with murder, but the truth is much more difficult. The legal system almost always comes for those who take the life of their fellow man. Wyoming has even had its fair share of criminals meeting their own end as punishment for capital murder. However, what would you say if I told you there was one place in Yellowstone that you could conceivably commit the perfect crime? 

Michigan State University law professor Brian C. Kalt called his paper on the subject: “The Perfect Crime,” after realizing some constitutional loopholes could be found in the 6th Amendment. That’s the one that mandates that those accused of a crime are entitled to be tried by a jury of their peers. But what happens when there aren’t enough peers to create a quorum of jurors? 

See, Yellowstone National Park has few year-round residents. It also spans three states, not just the Equality State. That already lowers the potential jury pool, but it’d be feasible. Here’s where it gets tricky, though. 

Only a small sliver of the park goes into Montana and Idaho. However, Wyoming is given legal governance of the entire park, so a crime committed there would be tried in Wyoming. Conceivably, this “zone of death,” in Yellowstone could be used to commit murder and get away with it. 

Just to be clear, we are NOT endorsing anyone to actually commit murder. This is all just a thought experiment really. 

See, if you were to commit a crime in the 50 square miles that dip into Idaho, the amount of people that are both in Idaho and Yellowstone would be too low year-round to create a jury of your peers. 

Kalt discovered this anomaly in US constitutional law while researching the 6th amendment, which guarantees citizens a speedy and fair trial. In the 50 mile stretch of Wyoming, that’s not possible due to the rural location and the laws set in place for how yellowstone is governed. Despite the fact that the park passes into Montana and Idaho, it was decreed that Wyoming would be responsible for trying cases and enforcing laws all throughout the park. 

The Yellowstone Zone of Death might also bring to mind the Yellowstone Caldera supervolcano. I’ve done a bunch of research on this topic too, but that might need to be it’s own episode someday. 

See, I’ve always told people that I wasn’t worried about the volcano, because my closeness to the volcano would mean I’d never know it erupted. I jokingly said I’d be dead before the cloud blocked out the sun and caused crop failures, which would be a much worse way to die. After more research, I discovered that it’s one of the most researched geological sites in the world— and that if it were about to erupt like Mt. St. Helens— we’d have a huge warning. Maybe even weeks. 

If it ever were to erupt, scientists and politicians would have refugees from Wyoming moved out of the line of fire. Which is not nearly as comforting to me, but it might be to others. It’s also worth noting that most of those geologists say that the volcano is not likely to erupt for another several thousand years. 

While the first state park has its share of dark history, deaths, and more— The yellowstone zone of death is one place where we all hope the governance of the park never has to be tested. To date, the only people who have come across this 50 mile stretch in Idaho are a few hunters who were not legally allowed to hunt in the park. 

Just this year, in february of 2022, an Idaho legislator proposed legislation to close this loophole in the Idaho side of Yellowstone, specifically after the finding of Gabby Petitio nearby the park. Rep. Colin Nash, D-Boise, is sponsoring House Joint Memorial 3, which calls on Congress to close the zone of death loophole.

“I read this in law school, and it pops up every now and then,” Nash said. “Every time there is a high profile disappearance in that area I think about this, and there were two last year, so that’s what brought it up again.”

While it’s unclear what congress will do with the resolution, Nash says that all they can do is try their hardest to make them see the law experiment that could become deadly if in the wrong hands. 

And once again, it’s worth saying that WE DO NOT CONDONE committing any crimes in the park. Don’t do it. Don’t test the constitutional law– Who knows how Wyoming could handle the case in a pinch, but for now– stay away from the Yellowstone zone of death and enjoy the rest of the park, which is beautiful, well cared for, and legally safe. 

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