Margie "Velma" Barfield
Velma Barfield became famous not just because she was executed for her crime, but because she was the first woman executed by the United States after the Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976. In fact, at the time of her at least initial conviction, North Carolina did not even have a place for women on death row. In the end Velma was convicted and ultimately executed for the murder of one man but it is said she admitted to at least three more. Some say she admitted to five more but I found no evidence of this. Authorities do suspect or claim that she is likely responsible for the death of at least one of her husbands, despite Velma's denial.
In 1949 Velma married her first husband, Thomas Burke. After having two children she had to have a hysterectomy. It has been reported that it was around this time that she developed chronic back pain that led to a drug addiction that in turn changed her personality. On April 4, 1969 Thomas Burke died and while the circumstances do seem to be suspicious, there is nothing to prove that Velma was involved, at least that could be proven. It was said that Thomas had become an alcoholic and had passed out in the home while Velma left with the couple's children. When they returned Thomas was dead and the home was on fire. It appears that no one seemed to suspect Velma may have been involved at all, and to be fair, his death was different than any subsequent deaths that she has been linked to.
In 1970 Velma married Jennings Barfield. On March 22, 1971, less a year into the marriage Jennings died of what was said to be “heart issues.” Again, no one at the time suspected Velma of anything. It was not until over a decade later that Jennings body was exhumed and it was said that there were traces of arsenic poisoning present. While Jennings' death is often mentioned Velma denied being involved.
In 1974 Velma's mother, Lillian Bullard, was living with her. At some point she got very sick where she had severe diarrhea, vomiting and nausea. She recovered by near the end of the year the symptoms returned and she died on December 20, 1974.
In 1976 Velma started working as a caregiver for an elderly couple, Montgomery and Dollie Edwards. Montgomery became ill and died January 29, 1977. Research did not go into the extent as to his cause of death, but Dollie would follow on March 1, 1977 and she had the same symptoms as Lillian had in 1974. Ultimately Velma would confess to the murder of Dollie, but not apparently to the murder of Montgomery. In my opinion it would be reasonable to believe that she was also involved in the death of Montgomery since it was later discovered that the motive behind Dollie's death was the fact that Velma was forging checks and taking money (she had done the same to her mother, and Jennings Barfield) without them knowing. Authorities would determine that arsenic was the cause of death for Dollie, as well as others who have been linked to Velma. Montgomery died only 1.5 months prior to Dollie and it is likely he was also being poisoned but again, this is just my opinion.
In 1977 Velma continued to work as a caregiver. This time it was to an elderly woman named Record Lee. Not long after gaining employment there Record's husband, John Henry died on June 4th. This is another death that Velma would eventually confess to committing. But again, she was not suspected or caught at that time.
It was not until the death of Rowland Taylor (an appeal paper states his first name as Stewart) on February 3, 1978 and the spotlight was put on Velma. It was at his funeral that a comment by her son, Ronnie Burke, sparked interest. He was stating how he felt bad for his mother that people around her kept dying. Rowland's family apparently then asked for a second autopsy and an investigation was launched. By the following month authorities had not only discovered that arsenic was found in Rowland's system but that apparently Velma had forged some checks in his name. On March 3, 1978, in her second interview with police she was confronted with both of these things. In the end she confessed that she and Rowland had argued about financial issues and that she feared he would learn about the other monies she had taken, she said to feed her addiction habit, and so she had begun to place arsenic based rat poisoning in his beer and tea. She went on to confess to the murders of her mother, Dollie Edwards and John Henry Lee. She was obviously arrested.
Authorities would learn that almost in every one of the cases she confessed to, and in cases she had not, that Velma had been stealing money from the victim. As stated earlier, they also exhumed the body of her second husband, Jennings Barfield and despite finding arsenic in his system also Velma denied being involved in his death. In the end authorities only charged her with the murder of Rowland Taylor.
After her conviction she was sentenced to death. She earned the nickname “Death Row Granny” while awaiting her execution. Her defense had attempted an insanity plea based on her drug addiction but they obviously failed in those efforts. They continued to attempt to use this as a basis for her appeals, including attempting to say that the addiction had not enabled her to help with her defense at the time of her trial. Of course, as is the case so often there were those who fought against her execution. Some protested simply because she was a woman. Others protested claiming she was a “born again Christian” something that we often hear out of inmates. Later I will be composing a blog on Karla Faye Tucker who was also executed and who also claimed redemption through religion. I will only state here that I believe Karla Faye came closer to this description than Velma did. In fact, I am unsure how she, or those around her made this claim. Velma had been a supposed devout Christian for many years before she was incarcerated. The comment her son made at Rowland Taylor's funeral, that brought suspicion to Velma in the first place talked of her being such a Christian person. Yes, Velma apparently spent her time in prison teaching other inmates the Word of God, but Velma had been doing that for decades already. It is hard for me to take her faith seriously, or as a change in her when that does not seem to be the case.
In the end the state of North Carolina executed Velma on November 2, 1984. She became the first woman executed by lethal injection. It may never be known just exactly how many victims Velma claimed before she was caught. By most statistics she is considered to be a serial killer due to the number of confirmed victims.