Thursday, August 23, 2012

Addition of "Death Results" Element in 2113(e) Instruction Causes Constructive Amendment, Requires Reversal

US v. Whitfield: Whitfield and a confederate started a bank robbery, which was foiled when a metal detector was triggered (presumably by the guns they were carrying) and the doors locked, preventing their entry.  They fled in a car and, eventually, split up to further flee on foot.  During his flight, Whitfield broke into a home in which an elderly woman was present.  While Whitfield was in the home, the woman had a heart attack and died.  Whitfield fled the home and was apprehended.  He was charged with multiple offenses, one under 18 USC 2113(e), specifically that he had forced the woman to accompany him and killed her.  It did not include a third means of violating that statute, the "death results" offense.  Whitfield was convicted on all counts and sentenced to life in prison.

On appeal, Whitfield raised two general challenges to his convictions.  First, he argued that the district court erred by not suppressing a statement he made about the break ins during his flight (including the one that resulted in the woman's death) because it had been coerced.  Whitfield actually gave two sets of statements - one about the break ins and another about the botched bank robbery.  After initially denying his motion to suppress all the statements, the district court held a further suppression hearing during trial and concluded that the bank robbery statement had been coerced and suppressing it.  The Fourth Circuit rejected Whitfield's argument that the statement about the break ins should have been suppressed as well, concluding that the totality of circumstances supported the district court's conclusion that the statement was not coerced, even though the questioning officers deceived Whitfield as to the seriousness of the charges he might be facing.

Whitfield's other arguments on appeal dealt with the district court's instructions to the jury on the 2113(e) charge.  The court rejected his arguments as to whether the district court should have instructed on a lesser included offense and that its instructions allowed for conviction on a theory of "mere confinement" as opposed to "forced accompaniment."  However, the court did agree with Whitfield's argument that the district court's instruction on the 2113(e) charge allowed him to be convicted on a charge other than what he had been indicted for by the grand jury.  Specifically, the court concluded that the "death results" provision - which was absent from the indictment but included in the instructions - was an element of the offense, not simply a sentencing factor.  2113(e) can be violated in three ways - only two of which were set forth in the indictment, although all three were present in the instructions.  As a result, the indictment had been constructively amended and Whitfield's conviction on that count must be reversed.  The court vacated the life sentence and conviction on the "death results" count and remanded for resentencing on the forced accompaniment theory, which it found was supported by sufficient evidence to sustain a conviction.

Congrats to the FPD office in WDNC on the win!

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