Decades later, a murder victim’s girlfriend still says the killer Ray Barham deserved life, not death

  • Breckie Hayes-Snow and her mother Louise Graham stand outside the State House for a portrait on Tuesday, May 22, 2018. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

  • Breckie Hayes-Snow and her mother Louise Graham stand outside the State House for a portrait on Tuesday, May 22, 2018. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

Monitor columnist
Published: 5/23/2018 12:21:59 AM

Louise Graham didn’t see the gun in her ex-husband’s hand, nor could she feel the jealous rage inside him that would lead to murder.

The events that day, 37 years ago, would change Graham’s life, but not her opinion on the death penalty, a hot-button issue these days in the Legislature.

Within seconds, the new love in Graham’s life would be shot dead, right there on her driveway in Wolfeboro, on Aug. 30, 1981.

Ray Barham was the killer. He had physically abused Graham, stolen money from her, stripped away her identity during their brief marriage. He had lied about illness and injury to keep Graham under his thumb, manipulating her to cook and clean and wait on him, and to feed his drug habit.

Then he forbade Graham from starting her new life by shooting Norman Walpole, her boyfriend of about six months. The couple had just returned to Graham’s home on a Sunday morning. They had been at church.

Barham died from cancer 16 years ago in prison, after carving out a writing career as a popular Monitor columnist, often sitting cross-legged on his cell’s top bunk to relay his thoughts to readers.

Graham stopped reading the paper, too distraught to see the words streaming from the state prison, from the man who had taken so much from her. Worse, Barham’s face ran with his column, a painful reminder – to Graham and her family as well as the Walpole family – that he maintained a vital role in the community after killing someone he had insisted deserved to die for stealing his wife.

Yet through it all, Graham never wavered, never believed that Barham deserved to die at the hands of the state. That’s how she was raised, that’s what she believed growing up, and that’s what she told me when we spoke recently.

While Barham was convicted of first-degree murder, New Hampshire law reserves capital punishment for only the most heinous crimes, like murdering children or the elderly, torturing victims before their death, or killing a police officer to escape custody.

But the discussion of the death penalty always hovers behind a murder. People want justice, an eye for an eye, they say. Not Graham.

She disagrees with Gov. Chris Sununu, who for months has said he’ll veto any bill to repeal the death penalty. The bill, in fact, is inching closer to his desk and could arrive there this week.

Graham’s philosophy closely mirrors that of Atticus Finch, the integrity-filled hero from Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, who explains to his daughter: “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view, until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”

In fact, Graham, a retired special education teacher, used Lee’s book in her class.

Asked about the death penalty and Barham, Graham, 81, told me, “We don’t know what drove them to the act and whether it was typical or a momentary spasm of fury brought on by past experience. No one left any of us the Wisdom of Solomon. It’s an inclination to say, ‘To hell with him,’ but we have to live with ourselves afterward, and that is the piece some may not think through.”

Two sides

The issue is drenched in irony, because voices from loved ones of murder victims have emerged, trying to change the governor’s mind. More than 56,000 signatures were gathered in an attempt to show Sununu that killing killers is wrong.

Rep. Renny Cushing, a Democrat from Hampton, lost his father and brother to gun violence, and he wants no part of Sununu’s stance.

“We are here to say that we’ve paid a very painful and harsh price for our ability to stand before you ... and say we don’t want killing in our name,” Cushing said.

Graham and her daughter, Concord attorney Breckie Hayes-Snow, are aligned with Cushing, despite the life-changing events of that Sunday morning in Wolfeboro. Hayes-Snow was in high school when Walpole was killed.

Like her mother, Hayes-Snow was easy and breezy while talking about the murder and the justice system, even though she watched Walpole take his last breath as he lay in the grass outside her mother’s house.

She sees the death penalty as a useless tactic, steeped in something that has more to do with hatred and revenge than anything else.

“I’ve always been against it,” Hayes-Snow told me. “And I can understand how someone might be for it. But now I’m less tolerant for people who are for it. People talk about justice. It’s not justice.”

“We should not be in the business of retribution,” she added.

Walpole’s murder set in motion a chain-reaction that included heavy media coverage of a made-for-TV tabloid story. The murder was only one subplot, along with infidelity, drug abuse and the controversial decision by former Monitor editor Mike Pride to hand Barham his own column, which he wrote for nearly 15 years.

And Barham was good, too. He won state and regional journalism awards and emerged as perhaps the most popular voice in the paper after his column began running in 1987.

And to be sure, Barham was smart, engaging, fascinating – something his wife and stepdaughter saw while trying to create a family in the 1970s, when Graham was a special education teacher and Hayes-Snow was a student at Brewster Academy.

“I loved him,” Hayes-Snow told me. “He charmed me and used his charisma to make me feel special.”

“He was good to the children, and that really mattered,” Graham added. “He was pleasant. We went out traveling, had a nice life.”

Abuse, then a jealous rage

That soon changed. Graham said Barham began lying about everything. She and Hayes-Snow suspect Barham faked injuries from a car crash. He certainly lied about having cancer.

Both maladies helped Barham feed his opioid habit and play on the sympathies of his wife, who allowed him to stay in bed and on the living room recliner while she served all his needs, raised her three children and worked full time as a teacher.

They said he stole thousands of dollars from Graham, forcing her to pay back taxes to the IRS. They said he assaulted her, once forcing the family to flee to a neighbor’s home, another time threatening her with a knife.

“I heard a ruckus in the kitchen, and I opened the door and I see Ray with a butcher’s knife,” Hayes-Snow said. “My brother was standing between him and my mother. I remember all these snapshots, images in my brain.”

In time, Graham said Barham moved into a different bedroom, becoming her estranged husband, before the two divorced in 1981 and he flew to the West Coast to visit friends.

Meanwhile, Graham found happiness. She socialized with fellow teachers and members of her church. She grew close with Walpole, whose children were friendly with Hayes-Snow and her siblings.

Graham described Walpole as “former Navy, well-educated, an academic administrator, kind, interesting, fond of family and children, a very upstanding citizen, a very nice person who thought about other people.”

Sometime in the summer of 1981, Barham returned to New Hampshire and followed Graham and Walpole from church to her house in Wolfeboro, where Graham still lives.

The couple got out of their car, as Barham did his, parked near the end of the driveway. Graham walked toward Barham, 52 at the time, wondering what he wanted, believing their life together was old news.

“He may have had a gun in his hand, but I was not looking for it,” Graham said.

Barham smashed his gun over the top of Graham’s head, knocking her to the ground, then fired three shots at Walpole.

Then he drove away.

Stunned but never unconscious, Graham moved inside to call police. Hayes-Snow remembered seeing her mother on the phone in the kitchen, holding a cloth tight to her head wound. She ran outside and found Walpole, who by then had dragged himself into the cool grass.

“He was still breathing, face down,” Hayes-Snow said. “His hands were clutched underneath him.”

Walpole died at the scene. Barham, arrested that day while sitting in his car, boldly refused a plea deal, arrogantly defended himself and got life without parole.

Graham? She and Walpole were in love and might have gotten married, Graham said. She’s been single ever since.

No to the death penalty

In the years leading up to Barham’s death from cancer 16 years ago, Graham’s emotional wounds grew deeper as reports claimed that Barham had killed his wife for betraying him. The other side of the story, the part about the abuse behind closed doors and the couple’s estrangement before Graham and Walpole ever became intimate often went unmentioned.

“It was private,” Graham told me. “And no one asked me.”

Graham admits she doesn’t recall if the two had begun dating before her divorce from Barham was final, but she insists she and Barham were no longer a couple at the time. They certainly were divorced by time Barham chose to kill Walpole.

But, really, does any of that matter?

To some, it did, including Barham, who never expressed any remorse for his crime.

“Remorse? No, I never felt the slightest twinge of conscience,” Barham told the Monitor in 1994. “I haven’t even forgiven Walpole yet, and I’ve never felt the need to justify myself.”

Letters attached to reports announcing Barham’s death in 2002 agree that Walpole had it coming. “His only crime seeming was wasting an adulterous dirtbag that was having an affair with his adulterous wife,” reads one letter.

“I don’t think he did anything wrong,” reads another. “That’s what I would have done.”

Graham felt the sting. And for years, she knew Barham was gaining a fan base through his Monitor columns. She resented the newspaper’s editors for giving Barham a forum.

She still lives in Wolfeboro, where the unthinkable happened. Same house, same driveway, same patch of cool grass, same memories. Graham, however, said she’s moved past the nightmare, telling me, “It’s stuff you live with and get comfortable enough where it does not interfere with your life. It takes a while.”

All the time in world, however, will not alter her stance on the death penalty.

“It’s nothing I can give a lot of credence to,” Graham told me. “I don’t think an eye for an eye is a way to live in the modern world.”

(Ray Duckler can be reached at 369-3304, or on Twitter @rayduckler.)

Ray Duckler bio photo

Ray Duckler, our intrepid columnist, focuses on the Suncook Valley. He floats from topic to topic, searching for the humor or sadness or humanity in each subject. A native New Yorker, he loves the Yankees and Giants. The Red Sox and Patriots? Not so much.

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