Death Row for One
Like most states, North Carolina had no "row" of women waiting to be executed. When she was sentenced, Velma Barfield was the only female in the state doomed by the law. She was housed in the Central Prison's section for mental cases, especially assaultive inmates, and prisoners considered prone to escape.
Early in her prison stay, Velma went through drug withdrawal. She had been supplied with many of her accustomed medications during her trial. Her first days as a condemned prisoner were spent without them and she showed the classic symptoms of cold turkey: lack of appetite, insomnia, nausea, cold sweats, and splitting headaches. The doctor who treated her gave her anti-depressants and anti-anxiety medications. Then gradually, over a period of over a year, she was weaned off of them.
To the extent possible, Velma made her cell into a home. She put up photographs of her children and grandchildren along with knick-knacks she crocheted and inspirational religious slogans. Velma did not usually smoke but she usually had a pack of Salem's so that she could light one up while having a bowel movement on her cell toilet. Velma, whose victims had usually suffered a horrendous diarrhea before death, did not want to offend her guards with the odor of her own excrement.
Velma's radio was usually tuned into a Christian program. Velma claimed that she had become a born-again Christian while in jail.
Although she had been a churchgoer and professed to love Jesus all her life, Velma said that she recognized that she had never been a true Christian. Her Christianity had been a matter of form and gesture. Then, while at her lowest ebb and awaiting trial for her life, she had finally, genuinely, opened her heart to Jesus and received forgiveness and salvation. She was listening to a sermon by J. K. Kinkle when the message of God's love hit home for the first time. "All my life I was weighted down by my sins because I couldn't do better," she wrote in her autobiography. "It never occurred to me that Jesus really did pay the price, that Jesus alone bore the extreme punishment — death — for my sins, not just for my "good" neighbors. And, even more glorious, Jesus is willing to be my friend even now. I can talk to Him, and He will listen."
Her conversion was greeted with skepticism by many, including the families of her victims. After all, she had spoken of Jesus and salvation when they knew her and when she was poisoning their loved ones. Her Christian faith had always been a fraud, they believed, and it continued to be one. It was just a ploy to try to save her life.
However, many people were favorably impressed by Velma's claim to be, for the first time in her life, filled with the Holy Spirit. Tommy Fuquay, a Pentecostal Holiness minister, believed that she was a true Christian. "I don't think I had ever seen anybody who had the repentant spirit she had," he commented. "I could see her growing and her attitude changing. The faith in her just grew and grew each time I would see her."
The famous evangelist Billy Graham and his wife Ruth would come to believe Velma Barfield was their sister in Christ. Ruth Graham kept in frequent touch with Velma by mail.
Velma found meaning in her limited life by helping other prisoners. She was dismayed to discover how many inmates were functionally illiterate. She often wrote letters for them.
Special rules applied to Velma because of the death sentence and included no contact with the other inmates. However, the prison authorities frequently broke this rule because they found that she could be a positive influence on other prisoners. Assistant superintendent for treatment and programs at the prison, Jennie Lancaster, put a 15-year-old named Beth into the cell next to Velma's. Lancaster asked Velma to try to help the girl who had been convicted as an accessory to murder.
Velma put her hand through the bars of her own cell and toward the next one so that Beth could hold hands with her. Beth took Velma into her confidence, pouring out her fears, while Velma prayed aloud for her and tried to comfort. For the first time in her life, Velma was known by her first name and Beth was the first prisoner to call her Mama Margie. She would not be the last. Other inmates often came to Velma for advice and words of reassurance.
Letter writing for herself and others consumed much of Velma's time. She wrote to her family and to supporters she had never met. She also kept up with her crocheting. Velma prayed and read the Bible on a daily basis. Her son and daughter visited and sometimes brought her grandchildren with them. Together with a pastor, she worked on her memoirs, Woman on Death Row.