The prosecutor in Velma Barfield's case was a large, blustery man named Joe Freeman Britt. He was an ardent advocate of capital punishment who had been called "the world's deadliest prosecutor." During one period of seventeen months, Britt had prosecuted thirteen first-degree murder trials and won convictions in all of them. That was a record and got him a mention in a Newsweek article.
Defending the accused serial poisoner was Bob Jacobson. He was a short, freckled lawyer and one of the few in Lumberton who would accept court-appointed cases. He had never previously tried a death penalty case.
Velma was being tried for one count of first-degree murder, that of Stuart Taylor. Her defense was that she did not mean to kill, only to render her victim ill while she attempted to cover up thefts by returning money she had pilfered from him. If true, she was guilty only of second-degree murder and the death sentence would not even be at issue.
Because the question of intent was so crucial, Britt argued that the jury was entitled to hear of other poisonings she had committed and their results. Jacobson argued that that would be prejudicial since she was only being tried for the death of Taylor.
The judge in the case was Henry McKinnon. He ruled that the evidence linking Velma to the deaths of John Henry Lee, Dottie Edwards, and her own mother, Lillie Bullard, be admitted.
First, the prosecutor put on both medical personnel and family who testified to the horror of Stuart Taylor's death. Britt also brought out the fact that his life could have been saved had the antidote for arsenic poisoning British antilewisite, or BAL, been administered. However, to do that, the doctors would have had to have been informed that Taylor had been poisoned with arsenic — and the one person who knew that, Velma Barfield, did not tell them.
Defense attorney Jacobson asked doctors about the effects of the various drugs Velma had been taking and their possible interactions with each other. Some of the physicians who testified about treating Stuart had also treated Velma and prescribed medications for her. Their testimony showed that she was on drugs that could have badly impaired her judgment and were addictive.
Jacobson put Velma on the stand in her own defense. He knew he was taking an enormous risk in doing so but felt he had to let her explain her own confused thinking to the jury. She did well on direct examination, saying that she had given her boyfriend poison to make him sick but not to kill him. She said she did not tell doctors what she had done because she feared being returned to prison. He also brought out her extensive use of various medications, her combining a wide variety of drugs, and her dependency on them. She admitted forging checks because she was addicted to drugs and could not pay for them out of her own limited resources.
In the opinion of Britt, Velma Barfield was a cold-blooded and cunning murderer who hid behind a sweet little old lady and pious Christian masks. He would tear those masks off and show the jury who she really was. When he cross-examined her, he began with no pretense of being amiable or friendly. In his stance, manner, and voice, he bristled with hostility.
She bristled right back and that was precisely what he wanted. At one point, she seemed to be trying to argue that she had not killed her victims. Rather, people coincidentally happened to die after she poisoned them! After all, the first autopsies all indicated natural deaths.
"What I would like, your Honor," Velma began during this astonishing statement, "to say to the jury and all, these autopsies — let me say first of all, when a person dies . . . and they ask for an autopsy to be performed, is it not true that we have an autopsy performed to find out the reason of the death? . . . So I don't believe it killed them really. That is exactly the way I feel about it."
A stunned Britt asked, "Beg your pardon?"
"I don't think it killed them."
At another point, Velma seemed oddly arrogant and snippy.
"You made Mrs. Edwards sick with Singletary's rat poison, did you not?"
"No, I thought it was roach and ant poison."
"So you knew these compounds would certainly make people sick?"
"I knew it would make them sick," the witness replied.
"You knew it would kill them, too, didn't you?"
"No, I did not."
The defense put on several medical witnesses to testify to Velma's lengthy history of chronic and overlapping drug use. None of them could say that she had been rendered insane in the legal sense by drugs but they testified that her judgment could have been terribly clouded.
Right after the prosecutor gave his summation to the jury, Velma made a gesture of silent applause, repeatedly putting her hands together without actually clapping. Her attorney and family were crestfallen. Britt was elated. With that single, uncalled for sarcasm, he was certain that Velma Barfield had as good as signed her own death warrant.
The jury came back with a verdict of guilty of first-degree murder. Then it found the "aggravating circumstances" to recommend the death penalty. Judge McKinnon fixed her punishment at death.