Veteran true-crime writer Bledsoe (Before He Wakes, 1994, etc.) offers a vividly bifurcated portrait of a woman who was by turns a cruel killer and a loving grandmother. Velma Barfield was the first woman in 20 years to be executed in the US when she was given a lethal injection in North Carolina in 1984. She had confessed to killing four people with arsenic (though she was tried and convicted for only one death). Her path to crime: After a childhood of poverty and abuse, Velma made a happy marriage and devoted herself to her two children. In turn, they looked after her when a series of ailments led to Barfield’s addiction to a shelf-ful of painkillers and sedatives. Often drugged to a stupor, and further afflicted with undiagnosed manic-depressive illness, she grew selfish and shrewish, poisoning her mother as well as her boyfriend and two elderly people who employed her as a caregiver (after forging their signatures to obtain money for her drugs). The second half of Bledsoe’s smooth and engrossing narrative depicts the —other— Velma Barfield—the woman who found God after her murder conviction and served while in prison as a spiritual mentor and confidante to other women prisoners, earning their love and that of prison administrators and chaplains. This Velma, as Bledsoe makes clear, might have been best sentenced to life in prison. The author’s account also evokes the drama of intriguing conflictual characters: Joe Freeman Britt, the near-fanatical prosecutor who obtained her conviction; Jimmy Little and Dick Burr, the lawyers who selflessly volunteered years of work without pay, trying to get Barfield’s death sentence overturned; and Pam and Ronnie, Velma’s children, whose lives were thrown into turmoil. Bledsoe’s balanced and thorough examination raises important questions about the death penalty and how it is applied.