Scared to Death: How Fright Can Kill

The case of a woman who died during a break-in isn't the first, doctors say.

ByABC News
February 20, 2009, 6:18 PM

Feb. 23, 2009— -- When 20-year-old Larry Whitfield of Charlotte, N.C., reportedly entered the home of 79-year-old Mary Parnell last September after a botched bank robbery, it is not likely he intended to kill her.

Yet, Whitfield now faces a charge of first-degree murder, as prosecutors allege that his presence in her home literally scared the woman to death.

Regardless of the legal merits of the case, medical experts support the idea that Parnell may indeed have died from the shock she received during Whitfield's invasion of her home.

"Yes, this could happen and most likely would occur in someone with pre-existing heart disease," said Dr. Stephen Hammill, professor of medicine at the Mayo Clinic and past president of the Heart Rhythm Society.

According to a press release issued by the Office of the United States Attorney of the Western District of North Carolina, Whitfield is "alleged to have forced a woman to accompany him without her consent, and to have killed her, in avoiding or attempting to avoid apprehension for the alleged offense of attempted bank robbery."

Armed bank robbery is a felony, which owes to the severity of the charge. According to the U.S. attorney's press release, if found guilty on that count alone, Whitfield could face 10 years to life in jail.

Of course, linking Parnell's death to the felony bank robbery attempt by Whitfield may be easier said than done. The fact that the attempted bank robbery apparently occurred well before the break-in may make it difficult for federal prosecutors to tie the events together.

Cases like this one, while rare, are not unheard of. In 1982, jurors in New York found Willie Ingram guilty of murder after 64-year-old Melvin Cooper died in his home from a heart attack that medical experts said was the result of the terror he experienced during a robbery attempt. Last year, a similar case was decided in Pittsburgh in which Mark Fisher was found guilty of murder in the 2003 death of 89-year-old Freda Dale.