Law Review: Bank robber ‘accidentally’ kills bank customer |

Law Review: Bank robber ‘accidentally’ kills bank customer

“Accidents happen. Sometimes they happen to individuals committing crimes with loaded guns.” Dean v. United States (2009).

That is the lead sentence in today’s case USA v. Van McDuffy.


On Oct. 16, 2013, Van McDuffy entered a Bank of America in Reno, brandished a handgun and demanded money from one of the tellers. The teller took the money from the till and handed it to McDuffy; however at that moment bank customer Charles Sperry attempted to grab the gun from McDuffy.

The gun “accidentally,” according to McDuffy, shot Sperry in the chest — he later died. After shooting Sperry, McDuffy kept right on robbing, calmly approaching another teller and forcing her to hand over money. Money in hand, McDuffy then fled the bank not noticing an off-duty police officer who was in the bank at the time, who gave chase and apprehended McDuffy at a nearby bus stop. Those are the facts.


The question in this federal case was whether McDuffy was subject to an enhancement sentence for murder because as he argued he only accidentally killed someone during the bank robbery.

McDuffy argued the federal enhancement penalty for the crime should only apply when a bank robber “knowingly” kills a person in the course of a bank robbery. The district court rejected that argument and instructed the jury to find McDuffy guilty.

What do you say? I think I know.


The Ninth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals analogized to the felony-murder rule, which basically recites that if you kill someone while committing a felony, by accident or otherwise, or even if someone else in your criminal group kills someone, you can be found guilty of murder. If you are committing the underlying felony, like a bank robbery, and if someone is killed, even if by another person in your criminal gang, you will be found guilty of murder under the felony-murder rule.


The Court of Appeals upheld McDuffy’s sentence enhancement under the federal sentencing enhancement code, finding that committing the basic crime of bank robbery is already wrongful conduct sufficient to add additional sentencing time in prison if someone is killed – even if by accident. The only criminal intent necessary is the intent to commit the underlying bank robbery. No intent to commit murder is required.

Goodbye McDuffy.

Jim Porter is an attorney with Porter Simon licensed in California and Nevada, with offices in Truckee and Tahoe City, California, and Reno, Nevada. Jim’s practice areas include: real estate, development, construction, business, HOA’s, contracts, personal injury, accidents, mediation and other transactional matters. He may be reached at or

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