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Wretched Sisters

Examining Gender and Capital Punishmend


Mary Welek Atwell

Since the reinstatement of the death penalty in 1976, fourteen women have been put to death in the United States. The criminal justice system defines crimes committed by women in a particularly gendered context. Wretched Sisters is unique in its analysis of the legal and cultural circumstances that determine why a small number of women are sentenced to death and provides a detailed account of how these fourteen women came to be subjected to the ultimate punishment.
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Chapter 3. Setting Precedent


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Velma Barfield

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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