A panel of Idaho lawmakers recommends the Legislature ask Congress to fix a legal loophole that has some calling part of Yellowstone National Park the “death zone,” where crimes could arguably never not be prosecuted.
The vast majority of the 3,471 square mile (8,990 square kilometer) park is in Wyoming, but about 3% of it extends into Montana and 1% of the park is in eastern L ‘Idaho. When Congress created the park in 1872, the Federal District Court of Wyoming had jurisdiction over crimes committed within the park’s boundaries.
Boise Democratic Rep. Colin Nash, an attorney, told the House Judiciary and Rules Committee on Thursday that he first heard about the “death zone” at law school. The phrase refers to a legal theory advanced by Michigan State law professor Brian Kalt in 2005 that a jurisdictional loophole could force the federal government to dismiss charges against anyone accused of committing a federal crime in the Idaho portion of the park.
In an academic article titled “The Perfect Crime,” Kalt noted that the Sixth Amendment states that those charged with crimes have the right to be tried by a jury of their peers, selected from the state and region where the crime took place.
That’s a problem for Yellowstone, because the only living things in the roughly 50-square-mile portion of Yellowstone in Idaho are grizzly bears, elk and other wildlife — and they’re not eligible for office. de jure. Kalt speculated that someone who committed murder in the Idaho part of Yellowstone might get away with it, since the feds would be unable to sit a constitutionally sound jury.
Nash is sponsoring a joint memorial to formally ask Congress to close the loophole.
“To my knowledge, no crime has been committed and has not been prosecuted,” Nash told the committee. “But whenever there’s a high-profile disappearance in this area, I think about it – and there were two in the last year.”
During months of searching for Tylee Ryan, 16, and her little brother, JJ Vallow, 7, law enforcement said they obtained video and photo evidence that the children had entered the National Park of Yellowstone with their mother. Lori Vallow Daybell, but no evidence has been found that Tylee ever left the park. The bodies of the two children were later found buried in the backyard of an eastern Idaho home belonging to their mother’s new husband, Chad Daybell. Lori and Chad Daybell were later charged with multiple crimes in Idaho state court.
When 22-year-old Gabby Petito went missing last year shortly after calling her family from Grand Teton National Park – which borders Yellowstone – theories about the ‘death zone’ came to the fore again. Petito’s body was found in the Wyoming portion of the park, and authorities blamed her boyfriend Brian Laundrie, who was later found dead in a Florida swamp.
Congress could change the law to bring the Idaho and Montana portions of Yellowstone under the jurisdictions of the District of Idaho and the District of Montana. Nash’s memorial would urge Congress to do just that, at least for Idaho.
Nash acknowledged that it’s unclear if Congress will actually do anything, as it’s a long-known problem.
“We can do our best,” he told the committee, prompting sad laughter from the room.
The committee agreed to a voice vote to recommend that the entire House of Representatives approve the resolution.