Velma Margie Barfield: 1st female murderer executed in North Carolina since 1976 — (Clark County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office)

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Clark County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office

Executed November 2, 1984

History

Velma Barfield was born in rural South Carolina, but grew up near Fayetteville, North Carolina. Her father reportedly was abusive and she resented her mother who did not stop the beatings.[3] She escaped by marrying Thomas Burke in 1949.[4] The couple had two children and was reportedly happy until Barfield had a hysterectomy and developed back pain.[3] These events led to a behavioral change in Barfield and an eventual drug addiction.[3]

Thomas Burke began to drink and Barfield’s complaints turned into bitter arguments.[3] In April 1969, after Burke had passed out, Barfield and the children left the house, returning to find the home burned and Burke dead.[3][5] Only a few months later, her home burned once again, this time with a reward of insurance money.

In 1970, Barfield married a widower, Jennings Barfield. Less than a year after their marriage, Jennings died from heart complications, leaving Velma a widow once again.

In 1974, Barfield’s mother, Lillian Bullard showed symptoms of intense diarrhea, vomiting and nausea, only to fully recover a few days later. Approximately two months afterward, a man whom Velma had been dating was involved in a fatal car accident. During the Christmas season of the same year, Lillian experienced the same illness as earlier that year, resulting in her death only hours after arriving at the hospital.[1]

In 1976, Barfield began caring for the elderly, working for Montgomery and Dollie Edwards. In the winter of that year, Montgomery fell ill and died. A little over a month after the death of her husband, Dollie experienced identical symptoms to that of Velma’s mother and she too died, a death to which Barfield later confessed.[1]

The following year, 1977, Barfield took another caretaking job, this time for 76-year old Record Lee, who had broken her leg. On June 4, 1977, Lee’s husband, John Henry, began experiencing racking pains in his stomach and chest along with vomiting and diarrhea. He died soon afterward and Barfield later confessed to his murder.[1]

Another victim was Stuart Taylor, Barfield’s boyfriend and a relative of Dollie Edwards.[1] Fearing he discovered she had been forging checks on his account, she mixed an arsenic-based rat poison into his beer and tea.[1] He died on February 3, 1978, while she was trying to “nurse” him back to health; an autopsy found arsenic in Taylor’s system.[1] After her arrest, the body of Jennings Barfield was exhumed and found to have traces of arsenic, a murder that Barfield denied having committed.[1] She subsequently confessed to the murder of Lillian Bullard.[1]

Velma Margie Barfield

Velma Barfield made international headlines when she became the first woman to be executed in America since 1962 and first since the re-introduction of the death penalty in 1976. She was also the first woman to be executed by lethal injection.

She was put to death at 2.00 a.m. on the 2nd of November 1984 at the Central Prison in Raleigh, North Carolina, a somewhat plump, 52 year old, grandmother, who had murdered four people. Velma was addicted to drugs, not the hard drugs like heroin or cocaine, but rather prescription drugs such as tranquilizers, sleeping pills, anti-depressants and barbiturates. Her addiction stemmed from a nervous breakdown and she had a history of overdosing and subsequent hospital treatment, with four admissions between 1972 and 1975.

Background

She was born on the 23rd October 1932 in North Carolina, the oldest girl and second of a large family of nine children. She claimed her father beat and raped her and her sisters although this was disputed by other relatives. She dropped out of school and by nineteen had two children, a son, Ron and a daughter, Kim by her first husband, Thomas. To begin with the marriage was happy and they seemed like a normal family unit. All began to deteriorate when Thomas suffered head injuries in a car crash in 1966 and became unable to work. Velma got a job in a store to make ends meet and support the family. Thomas rapidly become an alcoholic and Velma began to take anti-depressants and tranquilizers to get her through the daily stress of what had become a miserable life. Ultimately she had a breakdown and became addicted to the various drugs. Thomas died in 1969 in a house fire, which may not have been an accident and Velma re-married in 1970 to Jennings Barfield who was dead within 6 months – the cause – arsenic poisoning. Her limited employment opportunities could not support her drug habit so she took to forging cheques and then killing the people she had defrauded.

The crimes

By 1977 she was in a relationship with Stuart Taylor who was a widower and tobacco farmer. As usual she forged checks on Taylor’s account to pay for her addiction. Presumably Taylor began to get suspicious, because fearing that she had been found out, she mixed an arsenic based rat poison into his beer and tea. Taylor became very ill and Velma volunteered to nurse him. As his condition worsened she took him to hospital where he died a few days later. Unfortunately for her there was an autopsy which found that the cause of Taylor’s death was arsenic poisoning and Velma was arrested and charged with his murder. At the trial her defense pleaded insanity but this was not accepted and she was convicted. The jury recommended the death sentence. Velma appeared cold and uncaring on the stand and actually gave the District Attorney a round of applause when he made his closing speech.

She subsequently confessed to the murders of her mother in 1974 (in whose name she had taken out a loan) and of two elderly people, John Henry Lee by whom she was being paid as a housekeeper/carer and Dollie Edwards through whom she met Stuart Taylor (he was related to Dollie). Velma always attended the funerals of her victims and appeared to grieve genuinely for them. Her late husband, Thomas’s body was later exhumed and also found to contain traces of arsenic but Velma denied that she had killed him. Her motives for these four murders were the same. She had misappropriated money from her victims and then according to her, tried to make them ill so she could nurse them whilst finding another job to enable her to repay the money. Needless to say, the jury was less than impressed by this defense…

In [his book] Death Sentence, Jerry Bledsoe illumines many issues that had emerged only partially at the time of the execution.  One is the ferocity of Barfield’s multi-drug addiction. “In the nine years between Thomas’ death and her arrest,” writes Bledsoe, “she would get prescriptions from more than two dozen doctors, not only for Valium but for nearly two dozen other drugs, most of them also addictive, including barbiturates, narcotics, sleeping pills, stimulants and antidepressants, all of them prescribed by doctors trying to be helpful, and all of them dangerous and unpredictable when combined with Valium.”

It was her misfortune that she could stay vertical after a dose that would render most of us comatose. It was also an expensive habit, with only a fragile economy to support it. Velma, born poor, had achieved a comfortable life in her marriage to Thomas Burke. The life and the marriage destabilized abruptly when Thomas discovered alcohol. Velma became upset when Thomas started attending Jaycee meetings and having a beer or two with the guys afterward. Her anxiety was not misplaced, for Thomas took very little time to become a full-time drunk. He died after a fire which she later admitted setting.

With her addictions gaining ground, her employment as a live-in caregiver was probably the worst she could have had. Unwell, needy, she was saddled with the needs of aged and ill people. This was hard and depressing work, worse for a depressive. Unstable, she now endured an extra dimension of instability, a nervous existence at the mercy of employers whose satisfaction was the only thing between her and the street. When Velma’s overdoses and lapses did not elicit dissatisfaction, her habit of getting hold of their checkbooks and writing herself checks without their consent did. Not wanting to be fired, not feeling free to quit these jobs, usually having nowhere of her own to go, Velma resorted to arsenic. Arsenic was the instrument of the end for her second husband, Jennings Barfield, when he was about to divorce her, and for Stuart Taylor, the last person she dated. She dosed her mother to keep her from discovering a check she’d written on her. As methods go, hers was desperate, unclever and clearly marked: Velma needing drugs, Velma needing money for them, Velma doing what was expedient to get it. Then discovery and endangerment and their fallout in the form of death after nasty death by “gastroenteritis.”

Bibliography

Barfield, Velma, Woman on Death Row, World Wide Publications, Minneapolis, Minnesota, 1985.

Bledsoe, Jerry, Death Sentence, Penguin Putnam, New York, NY 1998.

Jones, Ann, Women Who Kill, Beacon Press, Boston, 1996.

Kelleher, Michael D. and Kelleher, C. L., Murder Most Rare: The Female Serial Killer, Praeger Publishers, Westport, CT, 1998.

Schoen, Elin, Village Voice, Does This Woman Deserve to Die? June 5, 1984.