William Van Poyck was sentenced to die in 1988 for killing prison guard Fred Griffis
Van Poyck became a prolific writer and offered a rare glimpse into death row
He described how death went from abstract to absolute once his warrant was signed
He was fitted for a death suit and wondered who would bear witness when he died
Not much is written in the way of obituaries for people who are put to death. They are convicted criminals; many are guilty of unspeakable cruelty.
We hear of death row cases when controversy swirls about a prisoner’s guilt, as was the case of Troy Davis, the Georgia man executed in 2011 despite the recanting of numerous witnesses whose testimony helped convict him. Or when a crime is so heinous that it gains notoriety for the perpetrator, such as serial killer Ted Bundy, who confessed to 30 murders.
William Van Poyck’s story was known for another reason.
Sentenced for murder in 1988, he spent 25 years in jail before he was declared dead at 7:24 p.m. Wednesday by lethal injection in a Florida prison. But it was not his sordid criminal narrative that drew international attention. It’s what he accomplished from his tiny cell.
Death row inmates deal with their demons in different ways. Some clutch their faith. Others draw or paint or read voraciously. Van Poyck chose to write.
He published three books, wrote his own appeals and penned long letters to his sister, Lisa. He mused over many things – corrupt politicians, hurricanes and movies. He liked “The Aviator,” the Howard Hughes biopic.
By no means does that take away from his guilt.
He and an accomplice, Frank Valdes, ambushed a prison van in 1987 outside a West Palm Beach doctor’s office. Their intention was to free James O’Brien, an inmate with whom Van Poyck and Valdes had served time.
Their attempt failed but ended in the fatal shooting of prison guard Fred Griffis.
Van Poyck took the stand in his own defense in an attempt to be spared from what was then the mode of execution: the electric chair. He admitted to a lot of things but denied he’d been the trigger man.
He was convicted of first-degree murder and spent time in a Virginia prison – moved there for his own safety – before he was brought back to Florida’s death row.
Griffis’ family and friends said this week that justice had finally been served and voiced frustration that Van Poyck had received so much attention because of the words he penned in prison.
Acknowledgment of that writing does not equal tribute for a man who committed murder. But Van Poyck gave us something rare: an unfettered glimpse into the mind of a man who was scheduled to die.
In 2005, Lisa Van Poyck began publishing her brother’s letters on a blog called “Death Row Diary.” Some of the more powerful entries are the last ones, after Van Poyck’s death warrant was signed and he learned the date that he would die.
His May 28 letter, his last entry on the blog, begins like this:
Tomorrow Elmer will be executed and I’ll be next up to bat, with 15 days to live. (Elmer Carrol was executed May 29 for the rape and murder of a 10-year-old girl.)
A situation like this tends to make you reflect on the elusive nature of time itself, which some folks – physicists and metaphysicists alike – claim is an illusion anyway. Real or not it sure seems to be going someplace quickly!
I read in a recent newspaper article that the brother and sister of Fred Griffis, the victim in my case, are angry that I’m still alive and eager for my execution. These are understandable human feelings. I have a brother and sister myself and I cannot honestly say how I would deal with it if something happened to you or Jeff at the hands of another. I have thought of Fred many times over the years and grieved over his senseless death.
He described what happens after a warrant is signed and a prisoner is put on “death watch”:
Today my neighbor, Elmer, went on phase II of death watch, which begins seven days prior to execution. They remove all your property from your cell while an officer sits in front of your cell 24/7 recording everything you do. Staff also performs a “dry run” or “mock execution”, basically duplicating the procedures that will occur seven days later. This is when you know you’re making the final turn off the back stretch, you know your death is imminent, easily within reach, you can count it by hours instead of by days.
He wrote about how everything suddenly became trivial after Florida Gov. Rick Scott signed his warrant, when death became imminent:
I’ve already thrown or given away 95% of my personal property, the stuff that for years seemed so important. All those great books I’ll never get to read; reams and reams of legal work I’ve been dragging around, and studying, for two decades and which has suddenly lost its relevance.
My magazines and newspapers stack up unread; I have little appetite to waste valuable, irreplaceable hours reading up on current events. Does it really matter to me now what’s happening in the Middle East, or on Wall Street, or how my Miami Dolphins are looking for the upcoming new season? What’s the point? Ditto the TV; I’m uninterested in wasting time watching programs that now mean nothing in the grand scheme of things.
The other day I caught myself reaching for my daily vitamin. Really?, I wondered, as the absurdity hit me. Likewise, after 40 years of working out religiously, that’s out the window now. Again, what’s the point? Now, every decision about how to spend the next hour reminds me of Elaine in that “Seinfeld” episode where she had to constantly evaluate whether her boyfriends were really “sponge worthy.”
He wrote in an almost nonchalant way about how he would go to his death. The number of days remaining and other grim details were accepted as normal by everyone around him on death row:
My cell (one of three) is next to the execution chamber so I won’t have far to walk. There’s another guy down here with me, his execution is set for two weeks before mine so assuming he doesn’t get a stay I’ll have a front row seat to how the final days and hours play out. Aren’t I lucky?
Van Poyck discussed the practical aspects of his death, though he admitted they were a little disconcerting:
On Tuesday they came and measured me for my execution/burial suit. Sometime soon I’ll be given the details on how “the body” will be disposed of following the legally required autopsy (will my cause of death really be a mystery?). I understand the state will pay for a cremation should I choose this form of disposal (I do) and my ashes will be available at a Gainesville funeral home; but don’t quote me on that yet.
He pondered the moment of his own death and the people who would bear witness:
I understand there are usually about two dozen witnesses to these executions and I sometimes wonder about those who will be at mine, unknown, faceless men rooting for me to die, happy to see me breathe my last breath. I wonder about men who do not know me, have never met me, never broken bread with me and who know nothing about what’s in my heart, who nonetheless are anxious, eager, happy to see me die.
It does not bother me, but I wonder if it will ever bother any of those men (and yes, it’s almost always men, with their lust for blood; women seldom indulge in this), perhaps in their sunset years when they reflect back on their youth and wonder about their imperatives. I hope, for their sakes, that one day they will be ashamed – or at least disappointed – with their naked blood lust and will determine to henceforth set a better example for those following behind them.
And what it felt like to find out that a non-death row inmate had hanged himself:
The irony wasn’t lost on me that while three of us on death watch are fighting to live, this poor soul, living just 10 feet above us, stripped of all hope, had voluntarily surrendered his life rather than continue his dismal existence. When nothing but a lifetime of suffering lays ahead – with no hope, no promise, no opportunity to change your fate – the idea of utter annihilation can come to look appealing in contrast.
He watched as an inmate was scheduled for execution and won a last-minute reprieve:
That’s gotta be a hell of a transition; you are hours away from execution, you’ve had your final visits (imagine how emotional that is), made your peace with the inevitable, perhaps eaten your last meal, then, in a finger snap, you’re told you won’t be dying after all (at least not that night) and you are back on a regular death row cell talking with the fellas.
I’ve seen a number of guys go through this over the years, one of whom was just 20 minutes from execution in the electric chair when he got his unexpected stay. They moved him next to me and I was startled to see that his hair had turned almost entirely white during the six weeks he was on death watch.
He died quietly in his sleep from a heart attack about six years later, right here on this floor.
He described what happened when death changed from an abstract idea to an absolute:
I got little sleep the first week, perhaps two hours a night and then I was up and wide awake at 2 a.m., mind racing, thoughts all a-jumble, despite my best breathing and meditation techniques. I’d finally get my mind onto some mundane subject and then, bam, my gut would knot up as the thought suddenly elbowed its way into my mind, these guys are going to take me next door and kill me in x-number of days! This still happens a dozen times a day, and more at night.
Over the years, Van Poyck had contemplated many things about his life. He had all the time in the world to think. Here is what he wrote on Mother’s Day this year:
Today is Mother’s Day, and as I usually do this time of year I open my photo album and look at those old black and white photos of mom (God, she was beautiful!) and wonder how my life would have turned out differently if she had not died when I was a baby, if I’d had a mother to love me, raise me, guide and nurture me, a mom I could love, look up to, and be determined not to disappoint. These are, for now, unanswerable questions, but when I pass over to the next plane I hope to get some answers. If nothing else I’ll be with mom and dad and that is what gives me such peace.
Thursday, the news of Van Poyck’s execution appeared on “Death Row Diary.” This time, the entry was the voice of his sister, who’d traveled to Florida to meet her brother for the very last time.
His last words were, “Set me free!” and his soul is indeed free now. Awaiting him were my mother and father with open arms and other family members and friends who went before. William’s reunion with his loved ones is a joyous event.
Media reports said Van Poyck declined to make a final statement, but the world has not heard the last of him yet. His sister wrote that she expects two more letters from her brother that have not yet arrived in the mail. She intends to publish what will presumably be William Van Poyck’s last words.
Material from CNN affiliate WPBF-TV in West Palm Beach, Florida, contributed to this report.