In what is expected to be his last chance to avoid death by lethal injection, condemned prison guard killer William Van Poyck on Monday turned to the U.S. Supreme Court in hopes it will stay his execution scheduled for 6 p.m. Wednesday at Florida State Prison.
Pointing out society’s growing disenchantment with the death penalty, Van Poyck’s lawyers urged the nation’s highest court to use his case to limit the use of the ultimate punishment. In the past 30 years, the high court has outlawed the death penalty for juveniles, the mentally retarded and rapists, they wrote.
Now, they argued, it’s time for the court to decide it’s unconstitutional to execute someone who did not plan to kill anyone and did not pull the trigger, but was merely present when someone else did.
His attorneys acknowledged they face long odds in their attempt to win their 58-year-old client a reprieve for the 1987 killing of Glades Correctional Institution guard Fred Griffis outside a West Palm Beach doctor’s office. To win a stay, five of the nine justices must agree.
They also acknowledged their legal toolbox is empty. “Never say never. You never know,” said Milwaukee Jeffery Davis of Milwaukee, one of Van Poyck’s three attorneys. “But at this point, we’re not planning anything else.”
For years, Van Poyck has insisted murder was not on his mind when he concocted the brazen plan to ambush a prison van to free a convicted murderer who was being brought to a dermatologist for treatment. Since Gov. Rick Scott signed Van Poyck’s death warrant on May 3, the widow of his accomplice, Frank Valdes, said her late husband confessed to her that he killed Griffis. Van Poyck told Valdes, “Nobody’s gonna get hurt in this,” Wanda Valdes said, quoting her late husband.
The Florida Supreme Court was unimpressed. “Since there is no question that Van Poyck played the major role in this felony murder and that he knew lethal force could be used, we find that the death sentence is proportional,” the state’s high court wrote unanimously last week, again rejecting his plea for a life sentence.
In Monday’s 15-page brief filed with the U.S. Supreme Court, his attorneys said that in the last 25 years only three people who didn’t fire the fatal shot have been executed nationwide. Less than 20 states allow the execution of people “who neither killed nor intended to kill.” When they last checked in 2007, Van Poyck was the only one of the 372 inmates then on Florida’s death row who fell into that category.
They reminded the high court that in 1982 it struck down the death penalty for those who didn’t actually commit murder. Five years later, it backtracked, saying so-called non-triggermen could be executed if their participation in a crime was major and they showed “reckless indifference to human life.” The court, Van Poyck’s attorneys wrote, should return to the 1982 standard.
For his part, Van Poyck seems resigned to his fate. In the latest missive his sister posted on his blog, “Death Row Diary,” he apologized to the Griffis family. Over the years, he said, he has “grieved over (Fred Griffis’) senseless death.”
The jailhouse lawyer, who has penned three books while on death row, sounded eerily upbeat. “All is well with me here in the death house,” he wrote. “I’ve been blessed with a strong body and a stout mind and spirit, more than sufficient to see me through this final passage.”
ABOUT THIS STORY
Jane Musgrave, a veteran reporter of Florida’s courts and legal system, has been covering the William Van Poyck case since the death warrant was first issued by Gov. Rick Scott. She will be one of three journalists to witness the scheduled execution on Wednesday at Florida State Prison in Starke.