WASHINGTON (CN) - A man who caused the death of an elderly woman by breaking into her home while fleeing police persuaded the Supreme Court on Monday to hear his challenge.
Larry Whitfield and an accomplice, Quanterrious McCoy, had been on the run after trying to rob the Fort Financial Credit Union in Gastonia, N.C., on Sept. 28, 2008. They never got past the bank's vestibule because a metal detector triggered an automatic locking mechanism so the men fled by car and then on foot.
McCoy was apprehended a short time later, but Whitfield tried to hide out in a private home.
Confronted by the homeowner, Whitfield brandished a kitchen knife, left and then forcibly entered a second home.
Whitfield explained to owner Mary Parnell that he was in trouble and simply needed to call a friend for a ride home.
During the call, that friend heard Whitfield ask the crying Parnell to calm down, explaining, "I'm probably more scared than you are and I'm actually just trying to leave." Parnell eventually gave Whitfield's friend directions to her home and then became unconscious and stopped breathing.
Whitfield fled the scene again, but he was quickly arrested. Parnell's husband returned home to find the woman dead of a heart attack.
In the indictment against Whitfield and McCoy, both men faced charges of attempted bank robbery, conspiracy to carry a firearm during an attempted bank robbery and carrying a firearm during an attempted robbery. Whitfield alone faced a charge of killing a person while attempting to avoid apprehension.
That charge encompasses three alternative offenses a defendant evading apprehension for an attempted bank robbery commits if he "'kills any person' (the 'killing offense'); or (2) 'forces any person to accompany him without the consent of such person' (the 'forced accompaniment offense'); or (3) 'forces any person to accompany him without the consent of such person' and 'death results' (the 'death results offense')," the court record shows.
Here prosecutors alleged only that, "in avoiding or attempting to avoid apprehension for said offense, [Whitfield] forced M.P. to accompany him without her consent and killed M.P."
"Thus, the allegations of Count Four were limited to the first and second alternative ... offenses, the killing offense and the forced accompaniment offense ... and failed to include the third, the death results offense," the 4th Circuit explained in 2012.
At a charge conference just before Whitfield's four-day trial in Charlotte concluded, Chief U.S. District Judge Robert Conrad directed the jury to consider the unalleged third alternative, the death results offense.
Whitfield objected, but was overruled.
The jury ultimately convicted Whitfield of the first three counts, but was split as to Count Four, finding Whitfield not guilty of killing Parnell in his attempt to avoid apprehension, but guilty of forcing her to accompany him on avoiding capture. On the questionnaire, the jury also answered yes to the uncharged question of whether this forced accompaniment resulted in Parnell's death.
Conrad sentenced Whitfield to life in prison on Count Four.
The 4th Circuit upheld the three robbery convictions in 2012 but instructed the trial court to apply a Count Four sentence that looks solely at the forced-accompaniment offense.
On remand, the court imposed a 264-month sentence. The 4th Circuit affirmed that order in December 2013.
The U.S. Supreme Court granted Whitfiled a writ of certiorari on Monday. It granted him leave to proceed in forma pauperis but did otherwise comment on the case, as is its custom.
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