Margie Velma Barfield (née Margie Velma Bullard) (October 29, 1932 – November 2, 1984) was an American serial killer, convicted of one murder, but she eventually confessed to four murders in total. She was the first woman in the United States to be executed after the 1976 resumption of capital punishment and the first since 1962. She was also the first woman to be executed by lethal injection.
Velma Barfield was born in rural South Carolina, but grew up near Fayetteville, North Carolina. Her father reportedly was physically abusive and she resented her mother who did not intervene. She escaped by marrying Thomas Burke in 1949. The couple had two children and were reportedly happy until Barfield had a hysterectomy and developed back pain. These events led to a behavioral change in Barfield and an eventual drug addiction.
Thomas Burke began to drink and Barfield’s complaints turned into bitter arguments. On April 4, 1969, after Burke had passed out, Barfield and the children left the house, and when they returned they found the structure burned and Burke dead. A few months later, her home burnt down but was insured.
In 1970, Barfield married a widower, Jennings Barfield. Less than a year after their marriage, Jennings died on March 22, 1971 from heart complications.
In 1974, Barfield’s mother, Lillian Bullard, showed symptoms of intense diarrhea, vomiting and nausea, only to fully recover a few days later. During the Christmas season of the same year, Lillian experienced the same earlier illness, but died in hospital a few hours after being admitted on December 30, 1974.
In 1976, Barfield began caring for the elderly, working for Montgomery and Dollie Edwards. Montgomery fell ill and died on January 29, 1977. 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 (March 1, 1977). Barfield later confessed to the latter death.
The following year, 1977, Barfield took another caretaker 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.
Another victim was Rowland Stuart Taylor, Barfield’s boyfriend and a relative of Dollie Edwards. Fearing he had discovered she had been forging checks on his account, she mixed an arsenic-based rat poison into his beer and tea. He died on February 3, 1978, while she was trying to “nurse” him back to health; an autopsy found arsenic in Taylor’s system. After her arrest, the body of Jennings Barfield was exhumed and found to have traces of arsenic, a murder that Barfield denied having committed. Although she subsequently confessed to the murders of Lillian Bullard, Dollie Edwards, and John Henry Lee, she was tried and convicted only for the murder of Taylor. Singer-songwriter Jonathan Byrd is the grandson of Jennings Barfield and his first wife. Byrd’s song “Velma” from his Wildflowers album gives a personal account of the murders and investigation.
Prison and execution
She was imprisoned in the Central Prison area for escape-prone prisoners and mentally ill prisoners, especially mentally-ill prisoners prone to assault. This is because there was no designated area for women under death sentences at the time, since she was the state’s only female death row inmate. A death row unit for female inmates in North Carolina was subsequently established at the North Carolina Correctional Institution for Women.
During her stay on death row, Barfield became a devout born again Christian.
Her last few years were spent ministering to prisoners, for which she received praise from Billy Graham. Barfield’s involvement in Christian ministry was extensive to the point that an effort was made to obtain a commutation to life imprisonment. A second basis for the appeal was the testimony of Dorothy Otnow Lewis, Professor of Psychiatry at New York University School of Medicine and an authority on violent behavior, who claimed that Barfield suffered from multiple personality disorder. Lewis testified that she had spoken to Barfield’s other personality, “Billy”, who told her that Velma had been a victim of sexual abuse, and that he, Billy, had killed her abusers. The judge was unconvinced. “One of them did it,” Lewis quoted him as saying. “I don’t care which one.”
After the appeal was denied in federal court, Barfield instructed her attorneys to abandon a further appeal to the Supreme Court. Barfield was executed on November 2, 1984 at Central Prison in Raleigh, North Carolina. She released a statement before the execution: “I know that everybody has gone through a lot of pain, all the families connected, and I am sorry, and I want to thank everybody who have been supporting me all these six years.” Barfield chose as her last meal a bag of Cheez Doodles and a 12-ounce can of Coca-Cola.
Barfield’s execution raised some political controversies when Governor Jim Hunt, who was challenging incumbent Jesse Helms for his Senate seat, rejected Barfield’s request for clemency. Hunt lost the election.
Barfield was buried in a small, rural North Carolina cemetery near her first husband, Thomas Burke.
- “Velma Margie Barfield #29”. Office of the Clark County Prosecuting Attorney. Retrieved 2008-01-16.
- Schmidt, William E. (1984-11-03). “First Woman is Executed in U.S. Since 1962”. New York Times. Retrieved 2008-12-12.
- “Death Sentence, a new book by Jerry Bledsoe”. Correction News. North Carolina Department of Correction. November 1998. Retrieved 2008-12-12.
- “Burial Service Is Held For Executed Woman”. New York Times. 1984-11-04. Retrieved 2008-12-12.
- Vronsky, Peter. Female Serial Killers: How and Why Women Become Monsters, p.197-98. Berkley Books, 2007, ISBN 0-425-21390-0
- Druckenmiller, Tom, “Off the Beaten Track: Jonathan Byrd – Wildflowers“, Sing Out!, 45:4 (Winter 2002) p.134
- “Death Row for One.” Velma Barfield. Crime Library. Retrieved on March 3, 2013. “Like most states, North Carolina had no “row” of women waiting to be executed. When she was sentenced, Velma Barfield was the only female in the state doomed by the law. She was housed in the Central Prison’s section for mental cases, especially assaultive inmates, and prisoners considered prone to escape.”
- North Carolina Correctional Institution for Women-North Carolina Department of Public Safety
- “Death Penalty News”. Death Penalty Information. Office of the Clark County Prosecuting Attorney. 1997-12-15. Retrieved 2008-12-12.
- “Graham Praises Woman Executed for Murder”. New York Times. 1984-12-08. Retrieved 2008-12-12.
- Nelson, Polly. Defending the Devil: My Story as Ted Bundy’s Last Lawyer. 1994, William Morrow, New York. ISBN 978-0-688-10823-6. Page 153.
- 1984 Year in Review: Velma Barfield Put to Death-http://www.upi.com/Audio/Year_in_Review/Events-of-1984/Velma-Barfield-Put-to-Death/12311825972512-13/
- “Barfield, Velma B.”. North Carolina Department of Correction Public Access Information System. Retrieved 2008-12-12.
- William E. Schmidt (1984-11-03). “First Woman Is Executed in U.S. Since 1962”. The New York Times. Retrieved 2007-08-11.
- Cohen, Richard M. (13 February 1989). “Essay: Politicians, Voters and Voltage” – via www.time.com.
- “Justice: Handling a Deadly Issue”. Time. 1984-10-08. Retrieved 2010-05-27.