A North Carolina man initially convicted of actions that scared a grandmother to death will now get a second chance before the Supreme Court.
In a legal long shot, Larry Whitfield and his Asheville, N.C.-based attorney on Monday beat the odds by persuading the high court to reconsider his case. If the 26-year-old Whitfield wins, he could regain his freedom earlier. He could also help clarify some confusion in federal law.
“Proper resolution of this issue will have a dramatic impact on Whitfield’s overall sentence,” defense attorney Joshua B. Carpenter noted in a legal brief. “This case presents a legal issue … that has vexed the federal courts.”
Carpenter is a staff attorney with Federal Defenders of Western North Carolina, which represents indigent defendants. Citing office policy, he declined to comment Monday on the court’s decision to hear the Whitfield case.
Few defense teams, though, get even this far. The Supreme Court receives upward of 9,000 petitions annually, and agrees to hear only about 75. It’s particularly unusual for the court to grant a case, like Whitfield’s, that has been given in forma pauperis status, which exempts the poor from certain costs.
Now incarcerated in South Carolina at Federal Correctional Institution Bennettsville, Whitfield is currently set to be released in May 2022. Several of the former Charlotte, N.C., resident’s convictions, including attempted bank robbery and firearms charges, are not in dispute.
But the actions Whitfield took that immediately preceded the 2008 death of Mary Parnell, a 79-year-old Gastonia, N.C., resident, will now be back in the spotlight. In particular, Supreme Court justices will use the Whitfield case to resolve different interpretations of what Carpenter called “an important and frequently applied federal criminal statute.”
More than 5,000 federal bank robberies were reported in 2011, according to FBI statistics cited by Carpenter. The statute in question penalizes more severely a bank robber who “forces any person to accompany him” during the crime or while fleeing. While a standard bank robbery conviction can be punished with a term of up to 20 years, but no mandatory minimum, conviction on the forced-movement statute brings a minimum sentence of 10 years and a possible maximum of life.
The dispute is over how significant this forced-movement must be, and whether it includes what lawyers call “de minimis” – minimal – movement of the victim.
“The courts of appeals to have considered the forced-accompaniment provision … have generally adhered to the plain language of the statute and upheld convictions involving forced movements of a relatively short distance and duration,” the U.S. solicitor general’s office argued in a brief.
Whitfield’s case dates to Sept. 28, 2008, when he and a partner armed themselves with a handgun and an AK-47 assault rifle and set out to rob the Fort Financial Credit Union in Gastonia, N.C. Turned back by a security system, they fled, and Whitfield ended up in Parnell’s home.
Whitfield tried to calm the visibly frightened Parnell, according to later testimony. Under circumstances that remain somewhat ambiguous, she went into a computer room of the house.
“I just know she, she went in front of me into the computer room,” Whitfield later told investigators, court records show. “I really don’t remember touching her. I was cooperative with her and she was cooperative with me.”
Whitfield subsequently left. When Parnell’s husband came home later, he found his wife in the chair, dead from a heart attack.
In an earlier ruling, an appellate court struck down Whitfield’s original life sentence because he had not been properly indicted for the specific crime of forced-accompaniment that results in death.
As is customary, the Supreme Court’s nine justices did not elaborate Monday on why at least four of them agreed that Whitfield’s case should be heard. One standard reason, though, is the need to iron out differences among different lower-level appellate courts.
One circuit court of appeals, for instance, upheld the conviction of a Florida bank robber who herded two women from one end of the bank to another. Another appellate court, though, reasoned in the case of a Texas bank robber that more is required, noting that “within the context of a bank robbery, there will often be movement within the bank by a bank employee.”