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How well do you know your Bill of Rights? You should know all of the ten Constitutional Amendments it contains by heart. The First, Second, Fourth, and Fifth Amendment are common knowledge and frequently discussed. The Third is something that doesn’t come up often — it prohibits homeowners from being forced to provide quarter to soldiers against their will. Number six is the subject of today’s post, since it lays out the rights of an accused person in a criminal case:
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.
Pay special attention to the bolded portion. Under most circumstances, there should be no trouble finding twelve impartial residents from a given district who can serve as jurors. However, there is one district where it’s supposedly impossible. This has been dubbed the Yellowstone Zone of Death.
The so-called Zone of Death was brought to the public’s attention by Brian C. Kalt, a law professor at Michigan State University. While studying the Sixth Amendment, Kalt wondered if there was a district in the United States where finding a jury of twelve impartial residents wouldn’t be feasible. He then noticed a strange issue regarding a 50-square-mile section of Yellowstone National Park in the state of Idaho.
Yellowstone is under the jurisdiction of Wyoming, so anyone who commits a crime there would have to be tried in Wyoming. However, if the crime was committed in the portion of Yellowstone that’s part of Idaho, it’d be unconstitutional to face trial in a different state. So you’d have to go back to Idaho to face trial… but there aren’t enough residents in that 50-square-mile district to serve as jurors.
Theoretically, Kalt argued that this contradiction means that someone could brazenly commit a murder or some other felony within this zone and get away with it, since it would be unconstitutional for the crime to go to trial.
Kalt published a paper titled “The Perfect Crime” in the Georgetown Law Journal in 2005, explaining the issue and encouraging lawmakers to address it. However, as of 2019, the Zone of Death reportedly remains an open issue. Fortunately, there hasn’t been a felony there that has put this issue officially to the test, so it remains a legal curiosity for the time being.
When asked how such an incident might play out in the real world, one attorney wrote, “It’s impossible to tell what a court would do in such a circumstance because there is absolutely no precedent… [However,] if you did in fact try it out, my guess is that the courts would do a bit of fancy footwork and find a reason to empanel a jury anyway.”