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Debunking Yellowstone’s ‘Zone of Death,’ the location internet sleuths have linked to Gabby Petito’s disappearance

The Zone of Death presents a fascinating thought experiment, but legal expert admits it’s not relevant

Graig Graziosi
Friday 17 September 2021 21:51 BST
Related video: National Search Underway For Gabby Petito
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Internet sleuths following the disappearance of YouTuber Gabby Petito have been speculating on the so-called "Zone of Death" in Yellowstone National Park, and whether it may play into the ongoing mystery.

Ms Petito, 22, was reported missing after her fiance, Brian Laundrie, returned to their home in Florida without her in early September. The couple were on a cross-country road trip before Mr Laundrie returned to his home without Ms Petito.

The Zone of Death is a 50 mile strip of land in Idaho that has captured the imaginations of true crime enthusiasts thanks to the claim that someone could technically get away with murder if they committed the act while in the area.

The claim that someone could get away with murder in the zone was popularised by Brian Kalt, a Michigan State University law professor. In 2005 he wrote a paper called "The Perfect Crime”, in which he raises a thought experiment about the strip of land in Idaho.

Mr Kalt's argument boils down to this: the Sixth Amendment guarantees that "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."

No one lives in the Zone of Death, so a jury could not be assembled. However, generally all land, no matter how depopulated, is part of a district within a state. Yellowstone National Park is an exception, as it spans Wyoming, Idaho and Montana. The park is federally considered within a Wyoming district.

Mr Kalt argued in his paper that, under a strict reading of the Sixth Amendment, no jury could be assembled because it would have to be made up of people living in Idaho but under the federal jurisdiction of Wyoming, thus the only people who would be qualified to serve on the jury would have to live in the Zone of Death. But no one does.

While this seems like the premise for a crime thriller, and it has served that role in at least one book and a horror movie, it does not actually mean that a murderer could get away with their crime if they committed it in the zone.

Mr Kalt himself admitted as much, telling Politifact that it "does not make murder legal in the zone”.

"It just presents a reason why it might be harder to prosecute someone for it successfully. But breaking the law is breaking the law, whatever happens to the person who does it," he said.

Mr Kalt went so far as to lobby Congress to change the laws, making Idaho and Montana's portions of the park parts of their respective states' federal districts. That effort proved fruitless, meaning the loophole still exists.

This photo posted to Ms Petito’s Instagram account on July 30 shows her hair is a darker colour than the later post (Instagram/GabsPetito)

Loophole or not, a murder in the zone of death would be prosecuted.

"I don’t think the prosecution would just give up," he said.

Instead, any hypothetical murder trial originating in the zone would establish legal precedent for future criminal trials.

So how does the Zone of Death factor into the disappearance of Gabby Petito?

Feverish internet detectives have brought it into the conversation by making a cascade of unproven assumptions about the case. First, they assume Ms Petito is dead. The police are still treating the investigation as a missing person case, meaning they do not believe she is dead. There is no evidence that a crime has been committed.

Second, they assume that if she is dead, she was murdered. If Ms Petito has died, there are numerous ways she could have perished while alone in the wilderness.

Gabby Petito and boyfriend Brian Laundrie documented their trip on camping app The Dyrt (The Dyrt/Gabby Petito)

Third, they assume if Ms Petito is dead and she was murdered, that she was in Yellowstone National Park, and specifically within the Idaho portion of the park. Ms Petito's last known location was Grand Teton National Park, which is adjacent to Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming. Her final text, sent on 30 August, said "No service in Yosemite."

It is entirely possible that Ms Petito – or whoever sent the text, as her family does not believe their daughter sent the final message from her phone – intended to say "Yellowstone”, as Yosemite National Park is 12 hours away from Grand Teton National Park.

However, that is an assumption. It is not currently known if Ms Petito was ever in Yellowstone, and a further assumption would be necessary to assume she traveled to the Idaho portion of the park.

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