A faulty indictment can mean the difference between a life sentence and a chance to walk free after 25 years.
This week, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals vacated Larry Whitfield's conviction and sentence on an uncharged "death results" offense for a North Carolina woman's death, reports The Associated Press.
Larry Whitfield and Quanterrious McCoy - armed with a .357 handgun and an AK-47 assault rifle - entered the front door of the Fort Financial Credit Union in Gastonia, North Carolina. As they crossed the threshold into the credit union’s small vestibule, a metal detector triggered an automatic locking mechanism on the inside lobby doors. Unable to enter, they fled, and later split up. The police found McCoy hiding under a van in nearby Belmont. Whitfield, however, managed to dodge the law longer by hiding in multiple strangers’ homes.
One of those homes belonged to Mary Parnell.
Whitfield entered the Parnell residence through the unlocked front door and encountered Mrs. Parnell, who was home alone. Mrs. Parnell immediately became very upset and began to cry. While talking to a friend who he called for a ride, Whitfield commented sporadically that Mrs. Parnell appeared to be unconscious and may have died.
Mrs. Parnell may not have passed while Whitfield was in the house, but she was dead by the time her husband returned home. She had suffered a heart attack. Whitfield literally scared her to death.
Police eventually found Whitfield hiding nearby. By the following morning, he had signed two statements confessing to the Belmont home break-ins and the attempted robbery of the credit union.
The “death results” charge at the center of this appeal is from 18 U.S.C. § 2113. It states:
Whoever, in committing [bank robbery or attempted bank robbery], or in avoiding or attempting to avoid apprehension for the commission of such offense, or in freeing himself or attempting to free himself from arrest or confinement for such offense, kills any person, or forces any person to accompany him without the consent of such person, shall be imprisoned not less than ten years, or if death results shall be punished by death or life imprisonment.
According to the Fourth Circuit, the statute includes three alternative offenses associated with evading apprehension for an attempted bank robbery: the “killing offense,” the “forced accompaniment offense” and the “death results offense.”
The problem is that Whitfield was not indicted for the “death results” offense, but the jury was instructed that they could convict him on the death results offense.
Had Whitfield been properly charged with the death results offense, the conviction probably would have stuck. Instead, the Fourth Circuit has remanded the case for an entry of a judgment of conviction on the Count Four forced accompaniment offense and for appropriate resentencing.
- U.S. v. Whitfield (FindLaw’s CaseLaw)
- Life Sentence Tossed Out for Man Convicted in Fright Death (WCNC)
- Misstated Maximum? Defendant Not Entitled to Lesser Sentence (FindLaw’s Fourth Circuit Blog)