The clipping is yellowed, a relic from 33 years ago when I was a journalism grad student and so wowed by a story that I cut it out of the newspaper for inspiration.
The article chronicled the last moments of the pajama-clad killer known as “Death Row Granny,” who in 1984 became the first woman executed in the United States in more than two decades.
Reporters the world over covered the event in Raleigh, N.C. But Washington Post writer Kathy Sawyer – a farmer’s daughter with no formal journalism training – penned what I consider the most compelling account of the episode, transforming a deadline news story with vivid narrative details.
And she did it without even witnessing the actual execution.
I’ve kept the clip for more than three decades, and used it in journalism seminars and classes as a case study on how feature-writing techniques can elevate hard news stories.
The method certainly elevated the writing of Sawyer, a two-time Pulitzer nominee who went on to cover space science for the Post (starting with the Challenger disaster) and author “The Rock from Mars,” which deep-dives into the headline-grabbing saga of a mysterious green meteorite.
Sawyer crafted her approach to journalism on the fly. Hired by the Nashville Tennessean despite having no news clips – just a couple of college essays on French literature – she initially wrote TV and film reviews. Eventually, she delved into weightier topics for the paper’s Sunday magazine before landing at the Washington Post while “Dustin Hoffman and Robert Redford were hanging out in the newsroom making ‘All the President’s Men.’”
After a stint on the metro desk, she moved to national issues, including murderess Margie Velma Barfield’s controversial death by lethal injection, a topic that still resonates today. Sawyer actually cranked out two stories on the 2 a.m. execution – one a quick turnaround for the Post’s late edition, the other (which I saw and clipped) for the next morning’s paper.
A few weeks ago, she reached deep into her memory banks to answer my questions about how it all came together.
An editor once told me to conceive of these sorts of stories as if they were “letters to your mother.” That sometimes helps me decide quickly what’s important.
How did you end up with this assignment, and did you go into it intending to use a featurized approach?
I was at that time a general assignment reporter on the Post National Desk, and kept a running list of story ideas. This one was a natural, involving a gothic story of murder and possible repentance, painful emotions on all sides, a historic milestone and contentious social, cultural and legal concerns. My editors agreed.
As for my approach, it was (and is) usually to report a story as if I were doing a feature – i.e. gather as much telling detail as possible – even though sometimes there might be time or space only for a shorter news story. Sometimes I would weave feature-type details into a hard news story. In this case, I did both – a couple of advance news stories on the execution as well as the piece you’re referencing.
One of the most impressive things about the vivid detail in this story is that you didn’t even witness the execution, but rather relied on descriptions from pool reporters. Did you speak with them in advance about what sorts of information you were looking for, or did you just get lucky with their observations?
Thank you! To the best of my recollection, I spoke with prison officials and possibly some of the scheduled witnesses. I know that I tried to speak with as many of those involved on all sides as were available and find out as much about the process as possible.
In many cases, narrative journalists have the luxury of time to report deeply and carefully craft their prose. This was a deadline news story, yet it feels like a Sunday takeout. How do you go about creating a narrative sensibility when the turnaround time is relatively limited?
The rule is “show, don’t tell,” right? So the accumulation of concrete detail is vital. The more dramatic and newsworthy a story is, I’ve found, the easier it is to write. I’ve always tried to step back and see the overall arc and meaning of the story (the trendy word these days, I guess, is “narrative”) and decide where its heart lay. Then I would try to accumulate as many meaningful details as possible that would allow the readers to feel almost as if they were actually there along with me.
As for the pure mechanics, to write a lengthier feature in a short amount of time (and keeping in mind this was decades ago when the tools of the trade were mainly pens, paper notebooks and sometimes a tape recorder), I would have numbered the pages of my notebook, then created on the back page a sort of running index of categories, such as “Barfield quotes,” “victims,” “prison operations,” “demonstrators,” etc., with page numbers so I could locate them quickly when writing the story. Sometimes I would actually tear the pages out of my notebook, tear them into strips and pile them into different categories. Organizing material is a bit easier with today’s devices.
Looking back 30 years later, is there anything you’d do differently with this piece?
Of course! My notes are always full of “golden” but unused factoids and quotes—unused because of a lack of space, irrelevance or some other factor. And I can always see phrases I could have worded better, or angles I should have covered. But it’s a done deal, right, so I believe dwelling on such stuff will surely lead to madness!
I’ve always tried to step back and see the overall arc and meaning of the story (the trendy word these days, I guess, is “narrative”) and decide where its heart lay. Then I would try to accumulate as many meaningful details as possible that would allow the readers to feel almost as if they were actually there along with me.
By Kathy Sawyer
Published in the Washington Post on Nov. 3, 1984
With a prayer on her lips, born-again killer Margie Velma Barfield died peacefully at just past 2 a.m. today as a government needle pumping a state-of-the art $30 injection stopped her heart. You include a lot of details and color here, yet the sentence doesn’t feel overloaded. Aside from the obvious who, what and when, how did you decide which elements to use? (I particularly like the “government needle pumping a state-of-the-art $30 injection” phrase.) Thanks! Under the rule of “show, don’t tell,” I try to present as much concrete detail as possible, as long as it advances the story. Here, we’re dealing with the mechanics of the state killing someone in the name of the citizenry, with conflict swirling around the act. It’s our job as journalists to inform citizens of what’s being done in their name. Also, I assume (though I don’t remember specifically) that I went through several drafts of the sentence, reworking it, before I settled on this version. One caveat about this entire “Annotation Tuesday” presentation: I’m trying my best to remember events from three decades ago.
“It’s not fair for you to leave me here with all this misery when you’re going to all that glory,” her attorney had told her a few hours earlier.
In a candlelight vigil suffused with the old-time religion of her Bible Belt heritage, Barfield’s shaken relatives and other mourners smiled through tears and prayed for her.
In counterpoint, a chorus of the victims’ families and pro-death-penalty demonstrators cheered for Old Testament justice. Throughout the article, you weave in a number of religious strands – the protestor signs, the prayers, the revival-style voices in the crowd. Did you go into the story with an eye out for such imagery, given Barfield’s born-again status? I knew going in that there were religious overtones to the story, but I remember also being struck as I drove around these communities by the number of churches, religious billboards, bumper strips and other visible signals of the importance of Christian beliefs here. I had grown up in Nashville, so you could say I was a child of the Bible Belt, but this was a striking display even so.
At the end, the woman known around the world as “Death Row Granny” told the warden once again that she was “sorry for all the hurt that I have caused” and thanked those who had stood by her.
As she lay in her pink pajamas in the stark, white death chamber under a blue-gray sheet, the former nurse-housekeeper kept her head turned away from the 16 official witnesses on the other side of the glass viewing panel. Were you able to view the chamber at any point, or was all of this derived from witness accounts? As I recall, I visited some parts of the prison—every place officials would allow—and I “saw” the death chamber at some point, but it may have been in a video or photo. In the course of interviewing prison officials and others, I remember trying to nail down where Barfield was being held—that is, what type of cell and how many paces it was from the chamber.
Although she wore her glasses, she kept her eyes closed most of the time and when she did open them, she looked straight at the tan plastic curtain that concealed prison staff members specially trained to execute her. How close were the journalist-witnesses that they were able to see all of this? My memory is that the witnesses were no more than about eight feet from Barfield’s gurney, maybe less.
At a signal from the warden, the executioners pumped doses of sodium thiopental into Barfield’s arms, putting her into a deep sleep. Then, they injected two doses of procuronium bromide, a paralytic agent to stop her breathing, which in effect suffocated her.
As the sleep-inducing drug entered her veins, Barfield could be seen wetting her lips a few times with her tongue. She seemed to move them as if in prayer. Here her lips “seem” to move in prayer, but it’s more definitive in the lede. Yes, it’s an elaboration, or a qualification.
Her color began to change from a healthy pink to gray, draining away from a spot in her forehead and working down. Riveting detail. Thanks. Of course, I have to credit the good journalist-witnesses for being able to answer so thoroughly.
Four or five minutes after her color changed, the prison doctor performed his only role in the drama: after removing her glasses, checking her pupils and listening to her heart with a stethoscope, he pronounced her dead. It was 2:15 a.m. He then drew a curtain between her and the witnesses.
The woman, who by her own admission had watched her four poisoned victims die slowly and in agony, did not appear to suffer in her own passing. Interesting juxtaposition. The question arises as to the purpose of these executions: deterrence, vengeance, etc. (The story touches on aspects of this in upcoming paragraphs, and a couple of other stories I wrote about Barfield did as well.) As you know, the Constitution and the courts have prohibited “cruel and unusual punishment.” But as we have seen recently in some botched executions, the state sometimes fails in this regard.
“I was struck by how peaceful it was,” said witness Tom Fuldner, a reporter for WWAY-TV here.
The details of Barfield’s death were revealed to reporters by Fuldner and three other local journalist-witnesses, including two women, before an encampment of lights, cameras and satellite dishes that had grown up outside Central Prison here. Why note that two of the witnesses were women? I thought it was relevant, and not a given, that women were represented on the witness side of the glass at the execution of a woman.
Barfield was the first woman executed in the United States since 1962 and the first white woman executed in the state. She was the sixth person in the country to die by injection and the second in North Carolina.
In wrangling over approval of death by injection here, one legislative critic charged that the method “sugarcoats” capital punishment. But supporters hailed the method as humane, allowing the condemned “a more peaceful exit.” They noted also that while the traditional cyanide execution in the gas chamber costs $104.04 per killing, injection costs the state only $30.12. As if that’s the most expensive aspect of having inmates on death row. Right. This is just a bit more detail.
As the hour of execution passed, inmates inside the prison held lighted matches to their sealed windows. Another nice detail. Were you outside the prison during all of this? How early did you arrive? I don’t remember the exact timing of my arrival. (What I do remember is that as I parked at the prison, I was in such a hurry that I jumped out of my rental car and locked the keys inside. I explained my plight at the guard house. They said, “No problem,” and sent out a trusty who apparently had done similar jobs when he was on the outside. He took about 10 seconds to break in and retrieve my keys.) My memory is that I was outside the prison, mingling with the demonstrators, part of the time.
The eerie sound of rebel yells and hoots of triumph rose from the few dozen pro-death-penalty demonstrators gathered outside the prison. They carried signs saying, “The law is the law,” and “God bless the victims.”
Construction worker Douglas Furmage had said earlier, “We just hope the state of North Carolina gives her their best shot, if you know what I mean. She killed people and it’s wrong.”
On a grassy slope near the prison, the starry points of lighted candles held by some 300 “anti-death” protesters looked like a massive, false firmament that echoed the real one above. Wonderful description. An unintentional foreshadowing of your move into covering outer space? It’s true that I’d always had an interest in space, and astronomy, and no doubt these impulses were in play. (I believe that’s one of the great things about a journalism career: If you work it right, you can follow your interests and get paid for doing things you enjoy. Shhhh … Don’t tell the bosses.)
Along with their candles stuck in soft drink cans, the protestors carried signs bearing scripture quotations. “An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind,” said one. Another showed a picture of a needle with the words, “Inject compassion.”
Near midnight, Barfield’s sister and two brothers appeared suddenly among the demonstrators, attracting a burst of bright television lights. As they spoke in turn, thanking and blessing the protestors for their support, voices in the crowd responded, “Amen,” and “That’s right,” in the rhythm of a revival meeting.
“It hurts, ’cause I’m gonna miss her,” said Faye Paul, Barfield’s sister, tears streaming down her face. “We hadn’t planned to come over here, but we wanted all of you to know that we love you.”
“We love you, we’re with you,” muted voices answered.
“We’re victims, too,” said her brother John, “double victims because it was our mother she killed and Velma’s our sister. It was hard . . . but we understand, we forgive.” Did you leave out the explanation behind her siblings’ forgiveness because it had (presumably) been covered previously? I had written a bit more about that in an earlier story. It recounted Barfield’s contention that her father had raped her and generally abused her when she was a child, and her sister’s confirmation of their brutal treatment. Barfield’s siblings also provided vivid descriptions of what Barfield was like as a prescription drug addict, with pills sometimes hidden in her bra or hair curlers.
Describing his visit with Barfield earlier that day, her brother James said, “I told her I’ll see you later . . . with the Lord.” He added, “She’s not afraid. We went in to lift her up and . . . instead she lifted us up.”
Barfield’s attorney, James D. Little, a state lawyer who has worked on her behalf for no fee, witnessed her execution. Earlier that evening, as he bid her goodbye, he said, his eyes filling, “I told Velma . . . if I didn’t believe and know that when she was executed, she would be joining the Lord, I couldn’t witness the execution.”
Relatives of three of Barfield’s four victims gathered at a Howard Johnson’s motel about 100 miles south of here, near her home in Lumberton, the rural community where the murders occurred. When was this gathering in relation to the execution? Were you also present for this? My recollection is that it was around the same time, and that I did meet with them.
“It’s a comfort. It’s a relief,” said Alice T. Storms, daughter of Stuart Taylor, the tobacco farmer Barfield was convicted of poisoning with roach killer just before she was to marry him. “I’ll be able now to go and visit my dad’s grave, not feeling like there’s unfinished business.”
She described Barfield as a “sadist who enjoyed . . . watching people die over and over again, watching them twist in agony and pain.” I’m wondering if other victim relative quotes were edited out for space or if there was a deliberate decision to limit their side compared with Barfield’s family, perhaps because it’s unexpected that her siblings would support their own mother’s killer? There certainly was no deliberate decision to limit anyone’s side. As you know, there is a constant process of small choices as to what must be included as essential to the story, and then what the priorities are given the time and space for optional material—all with the goal of presenting as honest a portrayal of reality as possible. I had the benefit of wonderful, astute editors. And, yes, working with my editors I had to edit the story for space. (I almost always “write long.”) And certain aspects had been included in earlier stories about the case. Of course, journalism is imperfect by its very nature.
The fourth victim Barfield confessed to poisoning was her mother.
Barfield’s family, including a son and daughter who appeared on talk shows on her behalf, and other supporters had fought a battle for public opinion, arguing that she was in a drug-induced fog when she committed her crimes but had recovered, experienced a religious rebirth in prison and deserved to live.
The families of her victims insisted that she used religious zeal and outward goodness as a mask to hide her evil nature.
One of Barfield’s final acts was to donate her organs for transplant. But officials reported that only the skin, bone and cornea were saved for the living. It feels like there was more to the story. Was it cut short for space? I can’t recall whether this was the intended ending or whether we lopped it off. But isn’t there always more to the story?