WASHINGTON (CN) - The Supreme Court on Tuesday upheld an enhanced sentence for a man who caused the death of an elderly woman by breaking into her home while fleeing police.
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.
Though McCoy was quickly apprehended as he fled on foot, 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, owned by Mary Parnell.
Whitfield explained to 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."
Though Parnell eventually gave Whitfield's friend directions to her home, Whitfield took off after she became unconscious and stopped breathing.
Parnell's husband returned home to find his wife dead of a heart attack.
A federal jury in Charlotte ultimately convicted Whitfield of three charges related to the attempted bank robbery.
He received a life sentence on the fourth charge of killing a person while attempting to avoid apprehension. Though the jury acquitted Whitfield of killing Parnell in his attempt to avoid apprehension, it found him 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.
After the 4th Circuit found that the Count Four sentence should look solely at the forced-accompaniment offense, the court imposed a 264-month sentence. The 4th Circuit affirmed that order in December 2013.
The U.S. Supreme Court took up Whitfield's challenge six months later and unanimously affirmed Tuesday, rejecting his claim that the word accompaniment connotes "movement over a substantial distance."
Citing the word's usage in English literature, the five-page ruling by Justice Antonin Scalia points to examples by Charles Dickens in "David Copperfield" and Jane Austen in "Pride and Prejudice."
"It is true enough that accompaniment does not embrace minimal movement - for example, the movement of a bank teller's feet when the robber grabs her arm," Scalia wrote. "It must constitute movement that would normally be described as from one place to another, even if only from one spot within a room or outdoors to a different one. Here, Whitfield forced Parnell to accompany him for at least several feet, from one room to another. That surely sufficed."
The length of the forced distance does not mitigate the danger, the court added.
"Consider, for example, a hostage-taker's movement of one of his victims a short distance to a window, where she would be exposed to police fire; or his use of the victim as a human shield as he approaches the door," Scalia wwrote And even if we thought otherwise, we would have no authority to add a limitation the statute plainly does not contain. The Congress that wrote this provision may well have had most prominently in mind John Dillinger's driving off with hostages, but it enacted a provision which goes well beyond that. It is simply not in accord with English usage to give 'accompany' a meaning that covers only large distances."