heart attack, fatal heart attack
David Hains/AP
Mary Parnell

Man Faces Murder Charges After Literally Scaring a Woman to Death

February 02, 2009 07:29 AM
by Lindsey Chapman
A botched bank robbery ballooned into a murder charge against a man who frightened a woman so badly that she had a fatal heart attack.

A Robbery Gone Bad

After Larry Whitfield’s attempted bank robbery in North Carolina was foiled by a set of locked doors and a crashed getaway car, he tried hiding in 79-year-old Mary Parnell’s home. He didn’t want to hurt her. In fact, he told her to go sit in her bedroom, according to The Charlotte Observer.

But Parnell was so frightened that she had a fatal heart attack, and Whitfield became “a rare defendant accused of literally scaring a person to death.”

Parnell was overweight, and had an enlarged heart, liver disease, kidney disease, heart disease and diabetes. Doctors said her death was caused by a heart attack resulting from “stress during home invasion.”

Legal experts have said prosecutors will have to demonstrate that Whitfield’s actions while he was in Parnell’s home caused her death. “Jurors very often resent what they see as overcharging,” Michael Tigar, a law professor at Duke University, told the Charlotte Observer. “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.”

FindLaw describes first-degree murder as “both willful and premeditated, meaning that it was committed after planning or ‘lying in wait’ for the victim.”

Many states also have a felony murder rule. An individual is considered to have committed first-degree murder if another person dies—accidentally or not—during the commission of a crime like robbery or arson.

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Background: Another robbery-turned-accidental murder

Three teens committing a robbery in Kentucky in 2003 ended up causing a fatal heart attack for grocery store owner Jay Carriss. Like Whitfield, they never touched the victim, but they, too, faced homicide charges. When Jay Carriss learned his store was being robbed, he and a family member went to the establishment and found the suspects still inside. Police found one of the suspects with gunshot wounds in his legs, but whether Carriss or his family member shot the teen is uncertain. Carriss had undergone an operation shortly before the incident. Edna Mae Pulliam, one of the store’s employees, said the stress of the situation had likely adversely affected his heart.

Reference: Stress on the heart

In 2006, researchers studying the effects of stress on the heart learned that intense situations can be hard on a person’s body. The researchers asked a group of men who had experienced heart attacks or stress-induced chest pain before to perform "a series of stressful tasks," or imagine a high-pressure scenario like giving a speech. All men registered higher blood pressure, heart rate and cardiac output. Those who were considered “particularly vulnerable to stress” took longer for their blood pressure to return to normal. The number of platelets in their blood was also high. Platelets form clots to help stop bleeding, but they can also create a blockage in the heart.

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