Condemned killer William Van Poyck’s chances of being executed next month for the 1987 murder of a prison guard outside a West Palm Beach doctor’s office increased Wednesday, when the Florida Supreme Court rejected his attorney’s contention that he is ill-equipped to handle the complex appeals and should be replaced.
The high court’s decision came hours after Palm Beach County Judge Barry Cohen also refused Jacksonville attorney Gerald Bettman’s motion to withdraw from the case so a more skilled lawyer could be appointed to represent Van Poyck, who is scheduled to die by lethal injection June 12.
“I don’t see much hope in this last 35 to 40 days,” Bettman said. “I don’t know if anybody can save him at this point.”
Van Poyck was convicted of killing Glades Correctional Institution guard Fred Griffis in a botched escape attempt. Van Poyck and fellow ex-con Frank Valdes planned to ambush a prison transport van and force guards to release inmate James O’Brien. The convicted murderer was being brought to a dermatologist office on North Olive Avenue for skin cancer treatment. During the melee, Griffis, a decorated Vietnam War vet, was killed.
The Supreme Court gave no reason for its decision Wednesday. In the order Cohen signed on behalf of Palm Beach County Circuit Judge Charles Burton, he said Bettman waited too long to file the motion to withdraw. Gov. Rick Scott signed Van Poyck’s death warrant on Friday and the Supreme Court court has already issued orders laying out the timing for Van Poyck’s appeals, Cohen wrote.
Burton is to hold a status hearing on the case today. Bettman is to attend by telephone. Van Poyck, who is on death watch at Florida State Prison, won’t be there.
Bettman has been representing the 58-year-old inmate-turned-award-winning-author for free since about 1995. A Milwaukee lawyer, Jeff Davis, has also filed appeals on Van Poyck’s behalf. Davis, who isn’t a criminal defense attorney, is out of the country. Bettman, who runs a two-lawyer office, said he has never represented someone in the flurry of appeals that are filed after a death warrant is signed.
“I’ve got to figure all this out and I don’t even know the routes,” he said.
Attorney Michael Minerva, a one-time director of the former state agency that handled death penalty appeals, said the situation is unusual. Typically, attorneys who are skilled at running the complex gauntlet of state and federal courts are appointed to handle the high-pressure, high stakes appeals that are mounted after a death warrant is signed.
“Sticking a client with an unqualified lawyer when a death warrant is active … I don’t think it’s in the interest of justice,” said Minerva, CEO of the Innocence Project of Florida. “It shouldn’t be about penalizing the lawyers for staying on the case but protecting the client who is in the worst possible situation — facing a death warrant.”
With a little more than a month to prepare, attorneys have to be ready to move quickly through state courts and into the federal system, seeking relief. “If you lose in this court, you have to be ready to go to the next court and then the next court. You have to prepare simultaneous pleadings,” he said.
Bettman said he has been reading case law, looking for some way to derail Van Poyck’s execution. He said he sees numerous grounds to argue that Van Poyck deserved a life sentence, instead of death. He has evidence jurors were biased toward the death penalty. He has evidence that Van Poyck’s first appellate attorney was incompetent. Such issues have already been considered and rejected by the Florida Supreme Court over the last 26 years.
Van Poyck, the son of an Eastern Airlines executive, has long insisted he didn’t fire the fatal shots. He admitted he planned to ambush the prison transport van and made sure he and Valdes were well-armed. But, he has insisted, no one was supposed to get hurt. Valdes, he claims, departed from the script. Valdes was beaten to death by prison guards in 1999.
Years before his death, Valdes confessed to another inmate that he killed Griffis, Van Poyck claimed in one of his 11 rejected appeals. In another unsuccessful appeal, he produced affidavits from four jurors who said they wouldn’t have voted for a death sentence if the prosecutor hadn’t fingered Van Poyck as the shooter.
Ronald Griffis and Carolyn Martin, who both live in Palm Beach County, said it’s time for their brother’s murderer to pay for his crime.
“He’s had 26 years of life that they took away from Fred,” Martin said. “Do I think he deserves another day on this earth? No.”