If she hadn't argued with the prosecutor at her murder trial, some say, Margie Velma Bullard Burke Barfield probably would have joined the 40 others serving life sentences in the women's prison here.
But she ignored her attorney's advice to "turn on the tears," he lamented later, and "just seemed to stick her chin out." The jury gave her the death penalty, and now this cotton mill worker's daughter, 51, is famous from London to Rio as America's "Death Row Granny."
Barfield is to die in the state's gas chamber Nov. 2 and become the first woman executed in the United States since 1962. She would be the first woman executed in North Carolina in 40 years and the first white woman ever executed in the state.
In 1978, she confessed to pouring Singletary Rat Killer or Terro Ant and Roach Killer into the beer and tea of a tobacco farmer she was engaged to marry, into the cereal or drinks of two elderly people she worked for as nurse and housekeeper, and into her mother's soft drink.
All four died, including an 80-year-old man who lingered for a month. Barfield stayed close to her victims, according to those who were there, "comforting" them as they died.
Yet Barfield's sad life story and gentle demeanor moved some, including a Roman Catholic nun and a state utilities commission lawyer working in his spare time without pay, to fight what became a dispiriting battle to save her.
They portray her as a kind of female Jekyll and Hyde, a loving, God-fearing mother of two whose mind at the time of the killings, and to some extent during her trial, was fogged by a decade-long addiction to Valium and many other prescription drugs.
After breaking free of the addiction in prison, they contend, she has returned to her good self, becoming a born-again Christian and model prisoner who crochets in her cell and counsels young inmates on the merits and methods of rehabilitation.
"If they execute my mom," said her son, Ron Burke, "they're executing someone who did not commit those murders."
The families of the people she killed and the man who prosecuted her angrily disagree. They contend that she is a "con artist" whom they remember as the same outwardly good woman all along -- before, during and after her crimes.
Joe Freeman Britt, the Robeson County district attorney, has maintained that, far from being "some sweet little old grandmother . . . , that woman is a cold-blooded killer, and if she gets out, she'd kill again . . . . Hell, she probably poisoned half the county, if we only had the resources to exhume all the bodies for autopsies."
Britt is listed in the Guinness Book of World Records as the "world's deadliest prosecutor" for winning 23 death verdicts in 28 months, at the same time putting 13 defendants on death row.
By summer's end, six years after her conviction, Barfield's case had been reviewed by eight courts and 21 judges, with five postponements of execution dates.
On Sept. 27, Gov. James B. Hunt Jr. denied her plea for clemency, clearing the way for the execution. He cited considerations of justice, deterrence and the fact that arsenic poisoning is "slow and agonizing. Victims are literally tortured to death."
Her supporters contend that whatever chance Barfield had was dashed because Hunt had to make his decision in the heat of a neck-and-neck race for the U.S. Senate against incumbent Jesse Helms (R-N.C.). The governor, a supporter of capital punishment, has said politics had no bearing on his decision.
The fact that Barfield is white and female hurt her, according to James D. Little, her pro bono appeals attorney.
"She's statistically okay to kill -- and politically okay to kill in this state," he said, referring to statistics showing that the death sentence is meted out disproportionately to black males and that Barfield will help "even the score."
In the three months preceding Hunt's decision, in hopes of mobilizing public opinion, Barfield gave interviews to dozens of newspaper and television reporters who had trooped to the prison for regularly scheduled Friday sessions.
After the last interview, just over two weeks ago, Little said, she met with the prison chaplain to talk about her funeral. That same day, he and her son picked out a coffin.
Barfield also had a special visit with her granddaughter, Stacie Norton, 8, Little said, to explain what was about to happen to her. Barfield told him afterward, "We had a good cry."
All she wants now, her son said, "is to be able to die with some dignity, if it comes to that."
A plump, round-faced woman with brown hair and glasses, Barfield passes her days now under maximum security in a corner cell of C-block, on the shady, campus-like grounds of the North Carolina Correctional Center for Women, south of downtown.
One summer day before Hunt's decision, Barfield, in her brown prison uniform, found the tears and remorse she had been unable to show to her jury. Her lips quivering, she called her crimes "a nightmare" and said she believes that she should be punished. "I think about my family, what I've done to them . . . . I do wonder if it ever ends."
Her supporters taped this and showed it to the governor. During a visit to the prison by her family, also on the tape, a smiling Barfield hugged and cuddled her two granddaughters -- Stacie and Wendy, 4 -- in their Sunday-best yellow dresses, trimmed with white lace.
"Come to Ma-maw," she said, in the delighted tone of any grandmother, beaming as she presented them with pink and lavendar stuffed bunnies she had crocheted.
If she had the chance, she said, she would ask the governor to spare her life, "to leave me here to be with my grandchildren -- my children and my grandchildren" and to try to "help somebody else."
In an interview with The (Raleigh) News and Observer, Barfield said, "I know that there is a lot of people who take drugs and drink heavily and that the things that happened in my life didn't happen, hasn't happened with them, but only by the grace of God. In those states of mind, anything can happen."
In another interview, referring to all the pain she's caused, she said, it seems "like a pebble, thrown into a lake of water, and the ripples continue to spread . . . . "
That pain is felt most keenly in rural Robeson County, in the small county seat of Lumberton, where many of those touched by the deaths still live, work and occasionally cross paths.
Alice Taylor Storms, mother of two, is the daughter of the farmer who had planned to marry Barfield until she killed him. She organized families of all the victims to lobby for Barfield's execution. They collected 2,000 letters from residents that they delivered to the governor. It was a question, Storms said, of the "credibility of the system."
She and another victim's daughter, Margie Lee Pittman, have run into Barfield's daughter, Kim Norton, who works as a clerk at the Lumberton K mart, Storms said. She described their encounters as strained but not hostile. "She put them in a predicament, too. They are victims just like we are . . . . They seem like real nice people."
Barfield's family was stunned as the revelations unfolded and embarrassed as she and her supporters blamed her plight on a brutal childhood. Her brothers and sister speak softly, tearfully, of having "forgiven her" for poisoning their mother and say they hurt for the other victims' families, too.
Velma Barfield was born into a hard-scrabble life, the second of nine children of Lillie and Murphy Bullard. He worked at Burlington Mills, repairing looms.
During the appeals process, Barfield revealed that her father had been violently abusive and said he had raped her when she was 13. Her sister, Faye Paul, said he almost did the same to her. Barfield has said also that she felt bitter because "mama never protected us."
Barfield dropped out of school in the 10th grade and eloped at 17 with Thomas Burke, who drove a Pepsi truck.
After 15 years of relatively stable and happy married life, during which they had two children, Kim and Ron, her husband lost his job, hurt his head in a car wreck and took to excessive drinking.
It was around this time, according to members of her family, that Barfield's drug addiction started.
Her brothers, sister and children describe seeing her passed out on pills "hundreds of times."
"She'd yell at us. Sometimes she'd just cry," said her daughter, Kim Norton. "She'd hide those pill bottles in the washer, in rolls of toilet paper, in her bra, out in the yard. Once, she even hid some in her hair rollers. She was walking around, and you could hear all these pills rattling around on her head."
In 1969, Burke died, reportedly of smoke inhalation, when his mattress caught on fire after he fell asleep drunk while smoking a cigarette. Some people found the circumstances suspicious.
Her second husband, Jennings Barfield, died in 1971, about six months after they were married. His body, exhumed along with several others during her trial, was found to contain arsenic.
The four killings were attributed to various natural causes, until the 1978 death of her fiance, Stuart Taylor.
After Barfield poured roach killer into Taylor's beer, she asked him to take her to an evangelical rally, where Taylor became ill.
Taylor's family demanded extensive autopsy tests and pathologists finally concluded that Taylor had died of arsenic poisoning.
Taken in for questioning, Barfield eventually confessed to poisoning Taylor, 56, and three others: her mother, Lillie Bullard, 74, in 1964; Dolly Edwards, 85, and John Henry Lee, 80, in 1977.
"The four of them, that was all," Barfield said at her trial.
Barfield has insisted that she didn't mean to kill any of them. In three of the cases, she said, she wanted only to "make them sick" while she paid back the relatively small amounts of money she had stolen from them to support her drug habit.
In the fourth, the Edwards case, she had stolen no money and could offer no explanation for the woman's death, except to blame it on her drugged state.
She was tried only for Taylor's murder. Robert Jacobson, her court-appointed defense attorney, offered a plea of guilty by reason of insanity.
Barfield tesified that she had been seeing several doctors at once, getting multiple prescriptions, sometimes doubling and tripling prescribed dosages. Jacobson documented her four hospitalizations for overdoses, but then he called a psychiatrist to the stand who declared that Barfield was sane.
Still, Barfield would have received a life sentence, he said recently, "if only she hadn't argued with Joe Britt . . . . I had jurors tell me that."
Barfield's only major remaining decision, one allowed under state law, is how she wants to die in the gas chamber: lying down on a gurney, by lethal injection, or sitting up and inhaling lethal gas.