Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Velma Barfield

'Gateway to Heaven'


Any death sentence is automatically appealed. In June 1990, the Supreme Court turned down her appeal because it found no unconstitutional element in the way North Carolina's death penalty statutes read.

Attorney Richard Burr (AP)
Attorney Richard Burr

A new attorney was handling Velma's case. He six foot tall, 200 pound, longhaired and thickly bearded 30-year-old Richard Burr. He was the lawyer for the Southern Prisoners Defense Committee and dedicated to aiding prisoners under a death sentence. Velma was the first doomed prisoner he would defend. Two hundred other condemned would follow.

On September 17, the Supreme Court turned down another appeal filed by Burr on Velma Barfield's behalf. Her best shot would be in North Carolina's state courts, Burr concluded, but he had no license to practice in North Carolina.

Velma with Attorney Jimmie Little (Cindy Burnham/Fayetteville Observer-Times)
Velma with Attorney Jimmie Little
(Cindy Burnham/Fayetteville Observer-Times)

Thus, a short and slender 36-year-old named Jimmie Little became her lawyer of record with Burr assisting him. Little had once been a public defender. He also had a reputation for being willing to stick his neck out. He had fought for his interpretation of free speech when he was a student at the University of North Carolina by opposing the ban on communist speakers at state campuses. As an Army officer during the Vietnam War, he had vocally opposed America's being in that conflict.

Little went to the Bladen County Superior Court. He filed a motion asking for a hearing to determine whether or not his client was entitled to a new trial. There were several complaints behind this motion but the chief one was "ineffective assistance of counsel." Thus, Velma was pitted against Bob Jacobson, her previous attorney. Little argued that Jacobson had failed in his duty to make appropriate motions and to put on helpful psychiatric witnesses.

The judge ruled against Velma and set another execution date. Her lawyers soon got a stay and filed more appeals. Over the next six years, several appeals were filed and turned down, several execution dates were set and avoided.

Both Ronnie and Kim continued to visit. As mother and son realized time was running out, Ronnie Burke brought up the painful subject of his father's death in one of their conversations. He was palpably terrified of the answer but had to ask the question.

"Did you kill him?" Ronnie asked.

"I'm sure I probably did," she sadly replied. Slowly, the story spilled out. Her memory was fuzzy but she believed that he had been drunk and asleep and she lay either a cigarette or a match at the foot of the bed, then shut the door.

She also admitted to the minister who helped her write Woman on Death Row, that she had murdered Jennings Barfield.

James Hunt, Governor of North Carolina (AP)
James Hunt,
Governor of North
Carolina (AP)

Once the appeals had been exhausted, Velma and her supporters had a thin ray of hope in the form of clemency from North Carolina's governor. That governor was James Hunt who was running against famous incumbent Jesse Helms for the U.S. Senate. The governor refused Velma's request for clemency saying her victims had been "literally tortured to death." Hunt tersely denied that the senate race had played any part in his decision.

As she prepared for death, Velma was able to speak over the phone with Billy Graham. "Velma, in a way I envy you," the famous pastor told her, "because you're going to get to heaven before I do."

Later she spoke to the Graham's daughter, Anne Graham Lotz, who comforted Velma by saying, "Don't think of it as the execution chamber. Think of it as the gateway to heaven."

As they do at all American executions, demonstrators both for and against capital punishment gathered outside the prison before Velma's death. Opponents held lit candles and hummed Amazing Grace, Velma's favorite hymn. A festive mood prevailed among the capital punishment supporters. They held signs saying, "Velma's going to have a hell of a time" and "Bye-Bye Velma" and chanted "Die, bitch, die!"

In her cell, Velma took a final communion. They put on an adult diaper underneath the cotton pajamas in which she had chosen to die.

"Velma, it's time," she was told.

Velma requested and got permission to put a robe on. Then she checked her hair in the mirror and stepped into the hallway. She was taken to a "preparation room" and asked if she had any last words. She did. "I want to say that I am sorry for all the hurt that I have caused," she began in a firm voice. "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 has been supporting me all these six years. I want to thank my family for standing with me through all this and my attorneys and all the support to me, everybody, the people with the prison department. I appreciate everything — their kindness and everything that they have shown me during these six years."

Death chamber gurney at Central Prison
Death chamber gurney at Central Prison

Then the condemned prisoner was escorted to her "gateway to heaven." That gateway was a tiny, sterile room with a gurney in it. Velma got up on that gurney, then lay flat down on it. Needles connected to IV leads were inserted into her arms. She would receive something to make her sleep, then a poison to stop her heart.

There were two lines into Velma but three executioners. One of their thumbs would press upon a plunger that was connected to a dummy so no one would know for certain that he or she had taken a life.

"Velma," she was told, "Please start counting backward from one hundred."

Obediently, Velma began, "One hundred, ninety-nine, ninety-eight . . . " Her voice slurred into silence and she started to snore. Her breathing got lighter and lighter with each breath. Then her skin turned an ashen gray. The monitor connected to her heart showed a flat line. At 2:15 a.m., on November 2, 1984, Velma Barfield, serial murderer and born again Christian, loving mother and killer of her children's father and grandmother, was dead.



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