Publisher: Penguin Putnam Inc, ONYX
reviewed by: Lynard Barnes 8/23/2003
Summary: A true-crime book worth reading. Highly recommended. The death penalty and Velma Barfield.
If true crime books or anything that “looks” like a crime book is not on your reading list, you should add Jerry Bledsoe’s DEATH SENTENCE. It is a true crime book that goes far beyond questions of crime and punishment. Bledsoe has managed to write a book that clearly exposes all the major issues swirling around the death penalty.
Velma Barfield was executed in 1984 for the murder by arsenic of Stuart Taylor. The issue is rather cut and dry. She did the crime. She confessed to three others as well.
Velma Barfield did not start out on a life of crime. She married at 17 in 1932, dropping out of high school. By nineteen she gave birth to a son and two years latter, to a daughter. Her life took a wrong turn in 1963 when she had to have a hysterectomy. Members of her family believed it was the turning point of her life, though the hysterectomy does not explain everything that lead Velma Barfield’s appointment on a North Carolina execution gurney in 1984. For that we must turn to drugs.
At about the time of her operation, Barfield discovers that her husband, Thomas, is having the occasional drink with the “boys” behind her back. He has a car accident in which he runs off a bridge and suffers non-life threatening injuries. She comes to believe that her husband’s accident was caused by his drinking. From that point on, their relationship disintegrates, pushed along by Velma’s own use of sedatives and pain relievers.
Drugs are the second protagonist in the story of how Velma Barfield came to be executed in 1984. As Bledsoe points out, when the Feed and Drug Administration approved the marketing of Valium in 1963, few if any were aware of the additive nature of the drug. Hard to believe. But then, when the medical community began experimenting with cocaine in the 1880s and later in the 1960s, few paid attention to cocaine’s addictive qualities either. Playing loose and goosey with human kind’s exploration of mind altering drugs seems to be a staple of the scientific method, at least as far as medical research is concerned. Velma Barfield became addicted to the drugs she was taking. On at least one occasion discussed by Bledsoe, when she went to doctors to cure herself of her addition to medication, she was given more medication. Before you realize Barfield has committed her first murder, you start asking yourself, what’s wrong here.
The way Bledsoe reconstructs the story, it is clear that the former Sunday school teaching housewife committed her murders to support her drug habit. The state of North Carolina would object to that. The prosecution painted the murderess as evil incarnate. The evil incarnate stuff just doesn’t wash.
The care with which Bledsoe ferrets out the life of Barfield permits us to see an excessively opinionated, self-pitying woman who becomes selfish and drug addicted. She is no more evil than the rest of us. It is the drug addiction that separates her from her community of common values. It is the drug addiction that prompts her to commit murder to hide check forgeries and life-insurance profiteering. Should she have been executed for this?
In the end, having walked through the valley of the shadow of death, Velma Barfield returns to her non-drug addicted self. Waiting on death row, she even elicits comparison to sainthood, which is way over the top. But there is no arguing that she appears to have erased all malice form her heart. She was still working on forgiving herself when she died.
The conclusion is inescapable that Velma Barfield should not have been executed.
Does the state have the right to take a human life? The answer is an unequivocal yes. The state which provides the framework in which individuals may enjoy the freedoms of life has the right to protect itself from any who would abridge or negate that framework. The state does not and can not have the right to enact vengeance nor act as a surrogate for those who would enact vengeance. Therein sits the cauldron surrounding the life and death of Velma Barfield. Behind bars, Velma Barfield was no threat to anyone.