Examining Gender and Capital Punishmend
Chapter 3. Setting Precedent
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On February 3, 1978, Stewart Taylor, a fifty-six-year-old tobacco farmer, died of acute arsenic poisoning at Southeastern General Hospital in Lumberton, North Carolina.1 Had his family not requested an autopsy, Taylor’s death might have been attributed to gastritis, consistent with his symptoms of nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea. Toxicological screenings showed an arsenic level of .13 to 1 milligram in Taylor’s system. Normally the human body contains no arsenic. Velma Barfield, Taylor’s live-in fiancée, had been preparing his meals. She was the only real suspect, although at first such suspicions seemed outrageous. Barfield had worked for the last several years as a home health assistant. Like many other poor and minimally educated women, she made her living doing domestic work, providing basic help for sick and elderly people. Killing someone she was looking after, especially the man she was planning to marry, seemed an impossible contradiction for a “professional” caregiver.
After her arrest, the world saw at least three additional images of Velma Barfield. According to the prosecutor’s version, she was a cold-blooded “murdering witch” who enjoyed watching helpless victims die. Her defense attorney attempted to present a somewhat more sympathetic view. His “Velma” was drug-addled and hapless. Because she had developed an addition to “dope,” she could not think straight and stumbled into murder.2 To pious people who ← 39 | 40 → heard of her religious conversion in the Robeson County jail, Barfield became a...
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