The representatives who passed the law in 1934 may have been thinking of "John Dillinger's driving off with hostages," Justice Antonin Scalia wrote for the unanimous court. But Scalia said the language Congress used was considerably broader.
The law made hostage-taking a separate crime and defined it as forcing someone to "accompany" the criminal.
Scalia's opinion was read by Chief Justice John Roberts because his colleague got stuck in traffic and was late to work.
Larry Whitfield was given an enhanced sentence for a bungled bank robbery in Gastonia, N.C. After fleeing a credit union with no money, he entered a neighboring home and forced Mary Parnell, 79, to move about 9 feet into a study, where she had a fatal heart attack.
In his appeal, Whitfield argued the distance was too short to be considered forcing Parnell to "accompany" him. But Scalia, quoting from Charles Dickens and Jane Austen, said that writers often used the word "accompany" for short trips like moving out of a room.
Whitfield, 20 at the time of the crime, was given a 27-year sentence, with much of it for taking Parnell hostage. He was acquitted of causing her death.
According to court records, he had discarded his gun before he entered the house. He then called a friend and asked for a ride home.
"Ma'am, just calm down. I'm probably more scared than you are, and I'm just trying to leave," he reportedly told Parnell, who had a heart condition.