Death Sentence: The True Story Of Velma Barfield's
by Jerry Bledsoe
Review by Hal Jacobs
As a child, I never understood why my mother read those true-crime magazines. The covers always featured a variation of a terrified young woman in a nightgown, cowering in her bed, her outstretched hands tied together with phone cord, under a headline such as "Newlywed Enjoys Honeymoon with Death."
Of course, I read every single page, and grew wise beyond my years in the ways of true crime. Drifters only wanted one thing, and it wasn't a ride to the beach. Good-looking con men had terrible tempers. Both dug shallow graves for their victims and eventually got caught. Why murderers didn't bother to dig a proper hole was beyond me.
What I didn't know at the time is that most Southern murders are of a highly personal nature compared to other parts of the country, where strangers usually do the dirty deed. But Jerry Bledsoe knows all about the murdering ways of Southerners. The author of Before He Wakes, Bitter Blood and Blood Games, Bledsoe understands that just because a woman acts like the perfect wife and mother, keeps an immaculate house, and goes to church every Sunday, doesn't mean she won't kill anybody who gets in her way.
In his most recent book, Death Sentence, we meet Velma Barfield, a 52-year-old grandmother who poisoned four people with arsenic, including her own mother, before she was executed by the state of North Carolina in 1984. (Like Karla Fay Tucker, she was white and rallied all sorts of religious leaders to her cause.)
As Beldsoe describes Velma's life and crimes, we see she was not only a victim of herself, but also of the times. She had the misfortune of being born to an abusive father who, instead of punishing one child for an infraction, would line up all nine children and whip them with his belt. She committed her murders while overmedicating herself with vast quantities of Valium, painkillers, and sleeping pills long before doctors understood those drugs caused hostility and rage. When she finally admitted that her father and other male relatives had molested her as a child, it was after her trial and far too late to sway a jury.
Perhaps worst of all, Barfield had the bad luck of being scheduled to die in an election year, becoming "a macabre wild card in the Deep South's hottest political race" between North Carolina Governor Jim Hunt and Senator Jesse Helms.
Throughout the book, we identify with Barfield's loving son, Ronnie, who handed his mom over to police, suffered during her trial and appeals for six long years, then watched her face turn gray as the state injected a muscle relaxant through an IV in her arm. (Bledsoe informs us that during a lethal injection procedure, there are three executioners with their thumbs on the plungers, and one of the three IV lines is a dummy, in case the executioners need a way of dealing with their guilt.)
Death Sentence is a flat, honest depiction of characters who are often scared or depressed or heartbroken, but never enlightened or victorious (with the exception of Joe Freeman Britt, the prosecutor who nails Barfield's death penalty). It's a brew of juicy details assembled from court transcripts, personal interviews and hundreds of newspaper stories. Much to his credit, Bledsoe never attempts to get inside Barfield's drug-addled mind, nor does he ever wink at the reader while, early on, those close to Barfield are dying from "natural causes."
If the book isn't quite the psychological thriller that the book jacket promises, that's okay. Many of us don't mind escaping into a landscape of trailer parks and Putt-Putt courses (Ronnie was once a pro on the miniature golf circuit) that's enlivened by a serial-killer grandmother.
P.S. This book is also a must-read for anyone who's ever been tempted to lace a loved one's tea with Singletary's rat poison.
| top |
from The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Sunday, October 4, 1998