Case of the ‘Death Row Granny’

I spent a number of my reporter days, weeks and years in criminal courtrooms and covered any number of dramatic, horrific cases, but none was more unique than the murder trial of one Velma Bullard Barfield.

Velma was executed by lethal injection at Raleigh’s Central Prison on Nov. 2, 1984, six years after confessing on the witness stand to the murder of her live-in boyfriend Stuart Taylor. She poisoned him with an over-the-counter pesticide. But it wasn’t just the confession to killing Stuart that gave the case its infamy, rather she admitted to prosecutor Joe Freeman Britt that she’d also murdered four others, including her own mother.

And the investigation that led up to the trial produced some evidence that she might have been involved in the deaths of many more people, though it took only the Taylor homicide conviction to put her on Death Row and ultimately become the first woman executed in the U.S. in some 20 years, the first woman ever executed by lethal injection.

Velma was 46 when she killed Stuart, a St. Pauls, NC, tobacco farmer. She was 52 and a grandmother when she was placed on a gurney in the death chamber at Central Prison and executed while protesters outside the prison gates sang “Amazing Grace.”

The case came to fruition based on the intense and methodical investigation conducted by Robeson County Sheriff’s detectives Wilbur Lovette and Al Parnell, who were initially steered toward Velma by Lumberton Police Lt. Benson Phillips. But it was the impeccably-choreographed prosecution of District Attorney Britt, then known as the ‘World’s Deadliest Prosecutor’ in the Guinness Book of World Records for his record of capital convictions, that ultimately evoked Velma’s calm confessions to the various murders.

Superior Court Judge Henry ‘Sandy’ McKinnon and a rapt jury listened as Britt questioned Velma, bringing out the multiple confessions. But the probable icing on the prosecutorial case came when Velma quietly applauded the district attorney, an imposing six-foot-seven man with a shock of silver hair, after his booming summation in the conviction phase of the trial.

The jury returned its verdict in less than a day.