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Published: Friday, 1/30/2009

Alleged rookie robber scares woman to death


RALEIGH Larry Whitfield was on foot, his getaway car wrecked, his rookie attempt at robbing a bank thwarted by locked doors, according to detectives.

Looking for a place to hide, police say, he found himself inside the home of a frightened elderly woman.

There s no evidence Mr. Whitfield ever assaulted 79-year-old Mary Parnell.

Authorities said 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 Mr. 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 gone on for Mrs. Parnell, said Capt. Calvin Shaw of the Gaston County Police Department, which handled the investigation into her death last fall.

Under a legal concept known as the felony homicide 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 every state and lets authorities bring murder charges whenever someone dies in the commission of 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, the county s district attorney and prosecutor in Mr. Whitfield s case.

Whitfield Whitfield
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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 rather isolated, officials claim.

Jurors convicted Willie Ingram in 1982 after Melvin Cooper, 64, died from a heart attack in his 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 Freda Dale, 89, who medical examiners said died in her home from a fear-induced heart attack. Mr. Whitfield attorney and his family declined to comment.

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