N.C. Department of Correction--Correction News--November 1998

Death Sentence, a new book by Jerry Bledsoe

Death Sentence, the new book from best-selling true crime novelist and former Greensboro News and Record reporter Jerry Bledsoe, recounts the life of Velma Barfield who was executed in North Carolina in 1984.

Death Sentence begins by introducing District Attorney Joe Freeman Britt, already famous for his death penalty prosecutions, and Ronnie Burke, Barfield’s son who receives two phone calls. In the first, Burke learns his mother has been arrested in the death of her fiancÚ, Stuart Taylor. Hours later he receives the news that she has confessed to the murders of Taylor, her own mother and two elderly people she nursed.

After this introduction, Bledsoe retraces Barfield's life, turning to her childhood in Robeson County where she suffered at the hands of an abusive father and resented her mother who did not stop the beatings. She escaped the brutality by marrying Thomas Burke. Their marriage produced two children and much happiness until Barfield had a hysterectomy and developed back pain – events that resulted in behavior changes and drug addiction.

The marriage soured as her husband began to drink and Barfield began to complain. Complaining turned into bitter arguments. Then in April 1965, Barfield and the children left the house where Thomas had passed out drunk and later returned to find Thomas dead and their home burned. From this initial suspicious death, Bledsoe traces the series of deaths that followed Barfield, the pain suffered by the families of the victims and the suffering of her own children.

The story then turns from Barfield to District Attorney Britt. The trial unfolds with Britt piecing together the case against Barfield for the murder of Taylor and presenting evidence that she killed her mother, her second husband Jennings Barfield, John Henry Lee and Dollie Edwards. The trial concludes with a dramatic cross-examination by Britt of Barfield that helps seal her fate.

While the first half of the book paints a picture of Barfield the killer, the second half tells a story of Barfield the victim. Barfield enters the North Carolina Correctional Institution for Women in chapter 17 and spends the next 16 months becoming drug free and undergoing an alleged religious conversion.

As the book traces the defense attorneys’ efforts to halt the execution, it describes the suffering of Ronnie Burke. It also recounts the suffering of the victims’ families as they read news accounts arguing against Barfield’s execution.

In the closing chapters, Bledsoe helps people see the complexity of concerns correction staff confront in carrying out an execution. The book mentions a number of correction employees including Nathan Rice (now retired), Jenny Lancaster, Skip Pike, Carol Oliver and Patty McQuillan.

The book presents two very different views of Barfield, with the first half of the book portraying the prosecution of the case and the second half describing the appeals by her attorneys. It also documents the complexities of the execution process and the impact it can have on those who are a part of it.

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