The Passions of Joe Freeman Britt

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Jordan, Pat. “The Passions of Joe Freeman Britt.” Southern Magazine March (1987): 38-41, 95-99.


Joe Freeman Britt is the District Attorney for the 16th Judicial District of North Carolina. This district oversees Robeson County and Scotland County. Both of these counties have some of the highest per capita murder rates in the United States. As the District Attorney, Britt prosecutes the worst of those murderers.

Fourteen years into his position, Britt has argued 47 murder one capital cases and won death penalty convictions in 44 of them. He chooses his cases very carefully, being realistic about the chances of conviction and evidence that the state has, while only participating in two or three cases each year.

Because of his percentage of convictions, Britt is known in the Guinness Book of World Records as the “World’s Deadliest Prosecutor.” For example, he sent Velma Barfield, a woman in her mid-50’s, to be executed in 1984. That was the first time a woman had been executed in the United States in 22 years. He also won the death penalty for a 16-year-old boy.

Because of the nature of Britt’s job, his life is sometimes in jeopardy. After being the target of a death plot in 1979, Britt became very private and protective. 

Britt was born in Lumberton, North Carolina where he currently resides. It is a dry, Bible-Belt town that Britt says he is trying to drag into the 20th century. He hasn’t always lived in Lumberton, though. After high school he served in the army before earning a B.A. in Literature from Wake Forest. He then received a M.S. from the University of Tennessee and eventually a J.D. from Stetson University in St. Petersburg, Fla. After that, Britt opened up a law practice in Tampa, before eventually moving back to Lumberton in 1965.

Britt was eventually elected District Attorney in 1974, where he realized his passion for arguing the death penalty. While only one of the people he has put on death row has actually been put to death at this point, it does not bother Britt. He rests easy knowing that, since the other 43 people have been sentenced to death, they will never have the option of parole.

Britt has been called racist by some, as many of the people he has helped sentence to death are African-American. Britt said those claims are false, as most of the African-American people he tries committed black-on-black crime. He said it is not a black thing, it’s a murder thing.

When prepping for a case, Britt has a specific technique and strategy. He wakes up at 4 a.m. to meticulously plan for the day and returns home 17 hours later for a few martinis before heading to bed. Britt also has an unorthodox way of jury selection, the most important part of the trial. He looks for people from worse backgrounds instead of educated elitist people.

When in a trial, he plots cases like a short story. He is a master at making the jury perceive the law in his way. He waives his opening statement in the trial phase and saves his strongest evidence and animated persuasion for the sentencing phase. Britt’s only weakness is his obvious disgust for the people that he tries.

While he used to not believe in the death penalty, Britt has since learned that committing a murder isn’t a once in a lifetime event. Now, using intense, gruesome detail, Britt gives a voice to the murdered that the jury cannot forget, earning the title, “World’s Deadliest Prosecutor.”

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