The first execution of a woman* in the U.S. “modern” death penalty era took place at Raleigh, North Carolina’s Central Prison on this date in 1984 when 52-year-old Velma Barfield received a lethal injection for poisoning her fiance.**
Barfield was already twice a widow in 1977 when her prospective third spouse Stuart Taylor began suffering agonizing stomach pain at church. He died shortly after.
A thorough coroner and a tip call to police by Barfield’s sister each independently flagged arsenic as the cause. Exploration of her past uncovered a disturbing pattern of people near to Velma Barfield who died in spells of nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea.
She would confess when confronted to poisoning off not only her late fiance, but also her mother and two elderly people for whom she was a paid caregiver, all during the 1970s — a period when she was afflicted by addictions to numerous prescription drugs. There are at least two other probable murders she may have authored during this time.† “It’s the saddest thing but it seems like everybody my mother ever gets close to dies,” one of her sons remarked innocently at Taylor’s service, before the criminal suspicions surfaced.
Like the second American woman executed — Karla Faye Tucker more than 13 years later — Barfield was mediagenic, devoutly Christian, and white. Like Tucker, Barfield made national news as she approached her execution date. Time magazine, 60 Minutes, even international press descended on Raleigh.
The bespectacled, crocheting grandmother ended up declining to appeal to the Supreme Court or file other delaying actions that were available to her so that she could meet her execution with greater dignity, but she still sought mercy from the governor. Her sterling prison record was her strongest card; staff routinely broke a “no contact with other inmates” rule (the entire death row women’s section consisted of Barfield alone) in order to put the matronly “Mama Margie”‡ around inmates whom her ministrations could help.
Unfortunately for Velma Barfield, her clemency pitch was addressed to Gov. Jim Hunt at the peak of his ferocious 1984 U.S. Senate run against Jesse Helms, the most expensive Senate race in U.S. history up to that point. Hunt wasn’t about to go soft on arsenic killers four days before the polls opened. (He still lost by 86,280 votes.)
In the small morning hours this date in 1984, dressed in pink cotton pajamas and an adult diaper, Velma Barfield gave a last statement apologizing for “all the hurt that I have caused,” laid down on a gurney to receive the IV lines, and was put to sleep.
* The last execution of any woman in the U.S. prior to Velma Barfield’s was all the way back in 1962.
** Last meal: Cheez Doodles and Coca-Cola.
† Her first husband, and the father of her children, died in a suspicious fire in 1970; shortly before her execution, Velma admitted to her family that she had started it. Singer Jonathan Byrd is the grandson of the apparent first poisoning victim, whose death Barfield only confessed very late in the game to the minister who helped her write her book: Jennings Barfield was already afflicted with emphysema and diabetes when the two wed in 1971, so his death a few months later failed to raise any eyebrows. Byrd eventually composed a song about his grandfather and his deadly bride, titled “Velma”.
‡ Full name: Margie Velma Barfield. She was born Margie Velma Bullard.