Executing Justice

I read the story of Velma Barfield almost by accident. I had been looking at the cheap Kindle deals of the day, and came across Jerry Bledsoe’s book Death Sentence: the True Story of Velma Barfield’s Life, Crimes, and Punishment.

I clicked on the “buy now with one click” button not only because the book was $1.99 and I’ve been using those deals to choose something that I wouldn’t normally read, but also because the description said it examined the issues surrounding capital punishment, and as someone who has believed capital punishment is immoral for many years now (I became a pacifist over a decade ago and the other followed not long afterwards) so I wanted to see if there was anything I missed that might be important to reevaluate that belief.

The thing that interested a lot of people about her story was that she was the first female that was executed after capital punishment became legal again in 1976. Many questions arose from Barfield’s death sentence, questions that are important and relevant. Questions that as a society we must grapple with, because like most other things in life, it’s a complex issue.

The story gave an up close and personal look at capital punishment, which honestly was eye opening. Bledsoe raised the point that capital punishment is premeditated murder on behalf of the state, and the condemned dies in a most unnatural way. So cold. So clinical. So inhumane. While I realize that what she did was evil, the state sanctioned murder of Velma Barfield was just as wrong.

Barfield’s story is a story rooted in violence, of violence that continues to cycle through generation after generation. The one universal thing that I notice is that violence begets violence begets violence. It continues down through families, and places, until somebody decides to break the cycle. Unfortunately for Velma Barfield, she wasn’t the one who broke the cycle, and the sad part of the story is that none of the rest of the family ever found peace either.

Violence manifests itself in so many different forms that it’s often unable to be detected at first. It’s something humanity has struggled with since the beginning. Adam and Eve’s son Cain comes to my mind. It’s so insidious and prevalent it’s a collective attitude and undercurrent that we no longer notice, as we have become so desensitized.

The violence continued with the State of North Carolina executing Velma. Her execution contributed to societal violence, rather than help solve it. I’d like to think that all the things Bledsoe wrote in his account of her life about her becoming Christian, although a very fundamentalist one, and becoming a better person was true.

Bledsoe also wrote that she lied and denied one of the murders almost until the end of her life, and that bothered me, but I think it shows human nature. I know she did not want to die, and reading her family’s account about their experiences of her being on death row is sobering. Unfortunately, the state sanctioned murder of Velma Barfield ruined the lives of her family members who continued the cycle of violence.

It seems like there are three main purposes that are cited for capital punishment. The purpose of capital punishment is often about revenge. I understand wanting revenge, but it’s rarely productive. The more productive thing to do is to go to therapy and do the incredibly hard work of healing ourselves so that we don’t feel a need for vengeance in order to be whole, to be the person we were created to be.

Another reason that causes people to believe that capital punishment is a good thing is that a life sentence does not usually mean a person stays in prison the rest of their lives. Serial killers like Velma are released from prison and the fear is that murderers will offend again when they re-join society, which is a very legitimate fear. This could be solved by making life sentences a sentence where the offender remains in prison for the rest of their life.

I’ve been told that capital punishment is necessary as a deterrent to other people who might murder someone, but with the cycle of violence we insist on staying in, people are going to rape and murder and do many other evil things because we are stuck in our spiral of violence. We’ve normalized violence so much that we believe we can only solve it with more violence.

The entire justice system is designed to punish but not restore. There is no concept of mercy, grace, and forgiveness, just this unholy urge for vengeance, which is its own form of violence. I’ve been known to tell my children that violence will never solve violence. We need solutions, not revenge.

We tend to have this deep, vampiric thirst for violence that cannot be satiated, and I think this shows the wickedness of our own hearts. I know that I tend to want mercy, grace, and forgiveness for myself, but I want others to pay for what they did. That too is part of the human condition and it’s ugly.

Prison life itself is another form of violence where society sees prisoners as animals to be contained rather than human beings created in God’s image. As an Episcopalian I constantly promise to strive for justice and peace among all people, and to respect the dignity of every human being. This promise is part of the vows of baptism, and we renew our baptismal covenant as a church every so often, personally it’s a daily renewal for me. When I say the words, I mean the words, and as such I believe we need to treat even prisoners, those who are often seen as the scum of the earth, with dignity and respect.

As the mother of four children, I’ve not seen punishment to be particularly effective in raising children, and prison solely for the purpose of punishment isn’t effective either. If we treated our prisoners better, left them with at least their dignity and valued their worth as a human being, I believe that we could begin to curb the violence we lust after.

If prisoners had humane living conditions, nutritious food, good healthcare, therapy, productive things to do, it would change their lives for the better. In the current system, prison causes violent people to become even more violent, because none of the issues that caused them to see violence as an acceptable solution have been resolved.

Considerations often need to be made for acts of violence in our current climate of seeing violence as a solution to almost anything, such as the question of culpability. There are legitimate reasons for the existence of insanity pleas. Sometimes a person has committed a violent crime under duress, in which case the guilty party is the one who forced the hand of the person who committed the crime. There are other extenuating circumstances which could be important also. Society encourages violence, which is why people respond with violence. It’s often seen as something that makes a person strong.

In Velma Barfield’s case, her lawyer tried to show that she only committed the murders because of her out of control drug addiction and therefore there were extenuating circumstances and she was not in her right mind. The jury didn’t buy that line of thinking, because she had murdered them by poisoning them, which shows a deliberate and calculated effort, and besides, she was a serial killer. She had killed six people all via arsenic poisoning. She killed them because she needed to forge their signatures on checks so that she could buy more drugs, and she had her plan well thought out.

I wonder what some of the jurors who decided on the death penalty, and the judge that ordered it to be so felt about their decision years later. I wonder if there was any regret, or feelings of guilt. Did they see Velma as a fellow human who had committed some evil acts? There is no denying that what she did was evil, but evil cannot overcome evil. Something needs to change.

Her attorneys continued to file appeals of the death sentence for six years, but to no avail, Velma Barfiled was killed by the state of North Carolina on November 2, 1984. Family and friends of her final victim grew angrier and angrier the longer the process went on. I understand that they were angry and frustrated, I’d not expect anything else, but anger and frustration often leads to violence and it did here.

State sponsored executions aren’t any less evil than any other murder, but there are many more people involved in the murder and society is complicit. Not only do these executions destroy the criminal on death row, they also affect all those involved, fundamentally changing who they are at a spiritual and emotional level. It has consequences for those who were part of the process, including the jurors, the judges, the attorneys, the prison guards, and the ones administering the injections.

Social attitudes about violence need a complete overhaul, but that can’t happen while the state is committing violence under the pretense of justice. It’s worth the incredibly hard work it takes to decide to let the violence stop with us, but it’s important and holy work.

This is the first in a series of feature articles about Christian thoughts about violence.

Continue the Series:
Arming the Altar: a Hot Take on Weapons in Church

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MaryClare StFrancis, M.A.

MaryClare StFrancis, M.A.

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She/her. I write memoirs, feature articles, essays, poetry, and more.