Cunning Poisoner—or Redeemed Christian—Velma Barfield Draws Nearer to Her Day of Execution

updated 10/29/1984 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 10/29/1984 AT 01:00 AM EST

Velma Barfield is a plump, hazel-eyed grandmother who reads her Bible daily, crochets dolls for her grandchildren and speaks in a soft, meek drawl about the virtual certainty that she will, on Nov. 2, become the first woman executed in the United States in 22 years. "I've known all the time it could come to this, but that doesn't make it easy," she says. "People don't think murderers deserve any chance to live, and it's like boastin' and braggin' about yourself [to say otherwise]." Still, Velma, one of 18 women in the U.S. now on death row, is prepared to accept the inevitable, which will come, by her choice of gas or lethal injection, four days after her 52nd birthday.

Minutes before North Carolina Gov. James B. Hunt Jr. rejected her plea for clemency last month, exhausting her last real hope of appeal, an affidavit was filed expressing Velma's wish to be spared further delays "just for the purpose of delay." In recent weeks her attorney, James D. Little of Raleigh, has turned down almost 30 entreaties from death-penalty opponents urging delaying tactics. "At some point," he says, "it's necessary to face reality."

The Barfield case has inflamed passions in North Carolina since 1978, when Margie Velma Barfield confessed to poisoning her mother, her boyfriend and two people she had been hired to nurse by pouring arsenic-laden rat or ant poison into their food or drink. Hunt's decision, coming in the heat of his U.S. Senate campaign against ultra-conservative incumbent Jesse Helms, may have settled Velma's fate, but not the bitterly debated question of what sort of woman she is.

Velma maintains that in 1978, while awaiting trial, she had "an experience with the Lord" that resulted in "an inward change." Like the rest of Velma's large family, Kim Burke Norton, 31, Velma's daughter by the first of her two marriages, is on her mother's side. "She's not the same person who went into prison in 1978," she insists. Barfield's supporters, who include several former inmates and Ruth Graham, wife of evangelist Billy Graham, say that she has served as a source of counsel and inspiration for other prisoners. "They'd come in ready to kill themselves, and here she was with a death sentence, mothering and helping them," says Sister Mary Teresa Floyd, 53, a Sisters of the Good Shepherd nun who resigned as a volunteer coordinator at the North Carolina Correctional Center for Women, in Raleigh, to devote more time to the 30-member Velma Barfield support committee. "Everybody talks about rehabilitation, but here's a woman who looked at her life and helped others."

The families of Velma's victims regard this kind of talk as pitifully naive—a description that they assert once applied to themselves. Says Margie Lee Pittman, 50, of Lumberton, "She's got religion now, they say. Well, she had religion before. So we all thought."

In 1977, at the suggestion of a local pastor, Pittman hired Velma, a twice-weekly Baptist churchgoer, to care for her elderly parents. In June of that year, shortly after he discovered that his kindly housekeeper had forged a $50 check on his account, Pittman's father, 80-year-old John Henry Lee, suddenly died. At the time the torturous vomiting, diarrhea and convulsions of Lee's final days were ascribed to gastroenteritis, an intestinal inflammation. In fact, it was arsenic poisoning, which does not show up in routine autopsies. Velma attended him through his suffering and sent an ornate wreath to the funeral, which she attended.

She sent an identical wreath when Stuart Taylor died in February 1978. Velma and Taylor, a 56-year-old St. Pauls, N.C. farmer and widower, had been engaged, but the relationship faltered after she forged $195 in checks on his account in November 1977. On Tuesday, Jan. 31, Velma poured poison into Taylor's beer and then his tea before they went, at her request, to a Rex Humbard religious revival. Late that night she called his daughter, Alice Taylor Storms, 40, of Lumberton, and said Stuart had come down with the flu. For the next three days, until Taylor died thrashing helplessly, Velma kept Storms away, gently reassuring her, "Don't you worry, I'll take care of everything."

After the funeral Velma asked for and received Taylor's wedding band, along with $400 the unsuspecting family gratefully bestowed on her. "You're looking at a big fool that got conned," Storms now says.

Knowing her father had been healthy, Alice pressed for tests beyond the standard autopsy. When arsenic was found in Taylor's tissues, Velma, under police questioning, confessed to poisoning him as well as Lee, Dollie Edwards—an elderly woman she had cared for—and her own mother. Later their bodies were exhumed. Arsenic was found in all of them—and in the body of Jennings Barfield, Velma's second husband, who died in 1971 and whom she denies poisoning. Charged with Taylor's death Velma was defended by a court-appointed lawyer. The local prosecutor was Joe Freeman Britt, whose prowess in capital cases had earned him a listing in the Guinness Book of World Records as the nation's "deadliest prosecutor." The court denied her plea of not guilty by reason of insanity. In her defense Velma testified that she had intended to keep her victims ill until she could repay the money she had stolen and earn their gratitude by nursing them back to health. She needed the money, she said, to pay for a host of prescription tranquilizers, antidepressants and amphetamines to which she had become addicted.

The death sentence Velma received has been appealed without success all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. Still, lawyer Little, who has contributed his time since taking the case in 1980, insists that the jury was never presented with "the full breadth and depth of Velma's addiction and of her background. If evidence available at that time had been brought out, they'd never have sentenced her to death."

In pamphlets, newspaper interviews and talk show appearances, Velma's supporters have fleshed out those details. The second of nine children, she grew up in rural Sampson County. Her father, Murphy Bullard, a loom repairman, regularly beat her, her older brother, Olive, and their mother, Lillie, who was unable to protect her children from her husband's wrath. "It was not really something we had done," Velma says. "Sometimes he couldn't find what he was looking for, and he would just go right off on one of us."

Velma says her father sexually molested her when she was 13. (Probably to her detriment, Velma told only her minister, but not her lawyers, about this last spring.) As a child she was convinced that no one, including her mother, would believe it. "Things that went on inside our home when I grew up," she adds, "were kept inside."

To escape her father, Velma says, she eloped at 17. After giving birth to her children, Ronnie and Kim, she lived happily with her husband, Thomas Burke, for 15 years—until, after an auto accident, he began to drink, lost his job and became abusive. To compensate Velma took two jobs, but slipped into a depression. Before Burke died in a fire in their house in 1969, she had a nervous breakdown and was given tranquilizers. They seemed to help, so she took more. To increase her supply, she saw more doctors.

Velma's children noticed the changes in her. "While she was on the drugs," says daughter Kim, "she always had different personalities—argumentative, sad or happy. I'd come home from school, she might be passed out with her face bleeding from something she fell against." Other family members were too caught up in their own problems to pay much attention. Between 1972 and 1975 Velma entered hospitals four times for drug overdoses but always emerged with more prescriptions. "I feel as guilty as she is," says brother Olive Bullard, a 54-year-old factory worker, "because I did nothing to help her."

In prison in December 1978 Velma went cold turkey. "When I began to dry out after those 10 years," Velma says, "I began to face reality. Nobody knows how frightening it is to have your mind begin to clear up and really know what has happened." Helped by regular visits from two ministers, Velma began to resolve the anger and other buried emotions that had fueled her crimes.

Prosecutor Britt finds little that is persuasive in Velma's tale. "Just how many people do you know who've had difficult childhoods who've gone around killing people?" he asks. "If her supporters are looking for an excuse, they have to come up with a better one than that." Counters Little: "It's not an excuse, but an explanation. No one is saying she should go free."

Velma has been rising at 3:30 a.m. to read her Bible and answer the 50 to 100 letters she receives a week. To keep up with the correspondence, she rarely takes her allotted hour of daily exercise outside her cell. The regimen seems part of her growing self-awareness. "The majority of us do put our own selves here," she says of prison. "When we learn to accept that we begin to make some progress."

Velma's family plans to gather at a supporter's house in Raleigh on execution night. "It's on my mind 24 hours a day," says Kim. With two children and a two-hour drive from Lumberton to her mother's cell, Kim can manage only weekly visits.

Though the relatives of Velma's victims applauded Gov. Hunt's decision, it failed to ease their torment. "I thought the world of Velma," says Margie Lee Pittman. "This thing's taught me to distrust everyone."

"I'm sorry for any hurt I've caused anybody," Velma says. "There isn't a day goes by that I don't think about this and wish that it were possible for me myself to take that hurt." As far as the State of North Carolina is concerned, there is a way, and on Nov. 2 it will see to it that she does.

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