Quoting Charles Dickens and equating hostage-taking with walking down the wedding aisle, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia declared in an opinion published yesterday that a North Carolina bank robber should receive a 10-year sentence enhancement because he temporarily held a woman hostage. The woman suffered from a fatal heart attack.
The Supreme Court’s unanimous opinion in the case, Whitfield v. United States, makes any bank robber subject to a 10-year enhancement if they take someone hostage, even if only for a fleeting moment. The case originated in Gastonia, where in 2008 Larry Whitfield entered the home of 79-year-old Mary Parnell after fleeing from a failed bank robbery. Inside, he forced the distressed woman to move with him from one room to another, over a distance of nine feet. She died shortly thereafter.
The case hinged on a 1934 federal law calling for a 10-year minimum sentence when a criminal “forces any person to accompany him” during a bank robbery or while fleeing. In his opinion, Scalia focused on the word “accompany.”
He offered various examples wherein one might “accompany” another across a very short distance: “from one area within a bank ‘to the vault,’ he wrote, or ” ‘to the altar’ at a wedding.” Consider, he added, the short distance it would take for a bank robber to travel to a window, in order to use a hostage as a human shield.
To hammer home his logic, Scalia quoted Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice and Charles Dickens’ David Copperfield. (“Uriah ‘accompanied me into Mr. Wickfield’s room.’ “)
In his failed argument, Whitfield tried to claim that the federal statute didn’t apply to short movements. He is housed in a federal prison in South Carolina, and is scheduled to be released in 2032.