If you live in the United States, you’re probably familiar with some of the basic rights guaranteed by the Bill of Rights — for example, freedom of speech, religion, the press; the right against self-incrimination; and the right for alleged criminals to be tried in front of a jury of their peers. But do you know what that last one means? It’s more complicated than one would think, and because of a strange legal wrinkle involving a very big national park, it may have created the perfect crime scene. At least, that’s what law professor Brian Kalt of Michigan State University College of Law argues in this paper. (If you’re a lawyer, law student, or law geek generally, it’s a fun read.)
How does it work?
Let’s say you, heaven forbid, are charged with a crime. The Constitution itself (Article III, Section 2 for those who wish to look it up) requires that the “Trial shall be held in the State where the said Crimes shall have been committed.” Pretty straight forward. The 6th Amendment requires that the jury must be “of the State and district wherein the crime shall have been committed.” Again, pretty clear. The only confusing part, unless you’re a lawyer, is probably the term “district.”
The U.S. Federal Courts are divided into zones called “districts” which correlate almost perfectly with states themselves. Connecticut has one district: the District of Connecticut. New York has four, using ordinal directions, e.g. “Southern District of New York” which includes Manhattan, the Bronx, and six counties in the state. Wyoming has one, as well, which includes the entire state — and, in addition, the parts of Yellowstone National Park which are in Idaho and Montana. And that’s where the perfect crime scene appears.
So that crime you’re charged with? Imagine you committed it in the part of Yellowstone which is actually in Idaho. Where would your jury come from? It would have to be from the state (Idaho) anddistrict (the District of Wyoming) in which the crime was commited — in other words, from that same part of Yellowstone which is in Idaho. The population of that area?
Good luck finding that jury.
Bonus fact: At 3,472 square miles, Yellowstone is not the nation’s largest national park — even though it’s larger than both Delaware and Rhode Island. The largest park? Wrangell – St. Elias National Park and Reserve in Alaska, covering 20,587 square miles. That’s about 20% larger than Switzerland.
From the Archives: Lunch and a Murder: They get together and solve cold cases over sandwiches.
Related: A map of Yellowstone — just in case.