RALEIGH, N.C. – Larry Whitfield was on foot, his getaway car wrecked, his rookie attempt at robbing a bank thwarted by a set of locked doors, according to detectives. Looking for a place to hide, police say, he found himself inside the home of a frightened old woman.
There's no evidence Whitfield ever touched 79-year-old Mary Parnell. Authorities say he even told the grandmother of five he didn't want to hurt her, directing her to sit in a chair in her bedroom. But investigators have no doubt he terrified her so much that she died of a heart attack.
Now Whitfield, a 20-year-old with no prior criminal record, is charged with first-degree murder, a rare defendant accused of literally scaring a person to death.
"He could've avoided all this by turning himself in, and life would've went on for Mrs. Parnell," said Capt. Calvin Shaw of the Gaston County Police Department, which handled the investigation.
Under a legal concept known as the felony murder rule, it's not uncommon for prosecutors to bring a murder charge against a defendant who doesn't intentionally harm a victim. The rule exists in some form in every state and lets authorities bring murder charges whenever someone dies during a crime such as burglary, rape, or kidnapping.
"If you're committing any of those offenses and a person dies, that's first-degree murder," said Locke Bell, Gaston County's district attorney and the prosecutor in Whitfield's case.
Prosecutors typically use the rule to charge all of the suspects with murder when, say, one of them shoots a teller during a bank robbery. But cases of prosecutors using the felony murder rule to charge a defendant with scaring someone to death are isolated.
Jurors convicted Willie Ingram in 1982 after 64-year-old Melvin Cooper died from a heart attack in his New York home, caused by what medical experts said was the "emotional upset" of a robbery attempt. Likewise, a Pittsburgh jury convicted Mark Fisher last year in the 2003 murder of 89-year-old Freda Dale, who medical examiners said died in her home from a fear-induced heart attack.
Whitfield is being held without bail, and his attorney and his family declined to comment. He's charged with several other crimes in addition to murder, and has not entered a plea. He faces life without parole if convicted.
Authorities said Whitfield and an accomplice, armed with semiautomatic rifles, planned to rob the Fort Financial Credit Union in Gastonia. The bank's staff locked its security doors as the men approached, leaving them stuck outside. They fled but crashed on Interstate 85. Officials said the other man was caught shortly after the crash, while Whitfield ended up at Parnell's doorstep.
Parnell's husband came home from a funeral and found her around 4:30 p.m., slumped over in the chair. Whitfield, police say, had fled after Mary Parnell went into cardiac arrest and broke into another nearby home. He was arrested while walking in the neighborhood.
Parnell's autopsy report said she had an enlarged heart, was overweight and had advanced liver disease, kidney disease, hypertension, heart disease and was a diabetic, all of which were decided to be secondary factors. Dr. Steven Dunton, the deputy chief medical examiner in Dekalb County, Ga., said an autopsy finding of natural causes can be upgraded by what he calls an external environmental factor.
In Parnell's case, doctors listed her cause of death as a heart attack due to "stress during home invasion."
"There's nothing seen by the pathologist that would show a person died that way," Dunton said. "That's entirely from circumstantial information."
Legal experts said those circumstances will be crucial to winning a murder conviction. Prosecutors must show what Whitfield did inside Parnell's home caused her death, said Michael Tigar, a Duke University Law School professor.
"Jurors very often resent what they see as overcharging," Tigar said. "They resent lawyers who claim too much for their cases. In most cases, (lawyers have) stretched the analysis or theory in order to heighten punishment, and are often penalized by the jury because of it."
Parnell's family — four children, five grandchildren and her husband of 59 years, Herman — support the decision to seek a murder conviction, said the family attorney, H. Monroe Whitesides.
Whitfield, he said, "breaks into the house that she occupied with her husband for 59 years, and he kidnaps her and moves her to another room and she has a heart attack. And you think that this Whitfield character ... ought to be excused for that?"