Supreme Court upholds FI robbery hostage law

January 14, 2015

WASHINGTON (1/15/15)--A 2008 credit union robbery attempt that took a tragic turn led to Tuesday's U.S. Supreme Court ruling that upheld a 1934 law making it a separate crime to take a hostage while robbing a financial institution.

In a 9-0 decision, the courth upheld a long prison term for a 20-year-old man who attempted but failed to rob a North Carolina credit union in 2008 and then hid in a nearby home that had an unlocked door (The Richmond Times Dispatch Jan. 14).

On Sept. 28, 2008, Larry Whitfield and a partner allegedly armed themselves with a handgun and an AK-47 assault rifle and set out to rob the Gastonia, N.C. branch of Fort Wayne, Ind.-based Fort Financial FCU, with $174 million in assets (Charlotte Observer Jan. 14). Deterred by a security system, the men fled, and Whitfield allegedly ended up in the home of 79-year-old Mary Parnell, who subsequently died of a heart attack.

Now incarcerated in South Carolina, Whitfield is currently set to be released in May of 2032.

A jury convicted Whitfield of attempted bank robbery while armed, and separately, of taking a hostage to 'accompany him' as he fled. He was acquitted of causing Parnell's death.

The question in the case was whether Whitfield's actions inside Parnell's home was enough to subject Whitfield to prosecution under the 1934 federal law that calls for a 10-year mandatory minimum sentence when a criminal "forces any person to accompany him" during a bank robbery or while fleeing.

In Tuesday's ruling, Justice Antonin Scalia wrote on behalf of the court that Whitfield's actions fell within the purview of the law.

"Here, Whitfield forced Parnell to accompany him for at least several feet, from one room to another. That surely sufficed," Scalia wrote.