As convicted murderer William Van Poyck makes his final five-week push to avoid his June 12 date with death, he finds himself without lawyers capable of handling the typical last-minute flurry of appeals.
In what death penalty experts say is an unusual situation, two attorneys who have represented Van Poyck for years for free now say they have neither the time nor the resources to continue to do so. The 58-year-old is sentenced to die for the 1987 killing of prison guard Fred Griffis outside a West Palm Beach doctor’s office.
Typically, attorneys are appointed to represent Death Row inmates in the multiple appeals they are allowed to keep the state from killing people for crimes they didn’t commit, said Bill Jennings, who handles death penalty appeals for Florida’s Capital Collateral Commission. Why that didn’t happen in Van Poyck’s case is unclear.
There may be other inmates, like Van Poyck, who are represented by private attorneys who aren’t skilled in navigating the hectic and complicated legal world of last-minute appeals, Jennings said. But, he added, he is unaware of it happening when an inmate is facing a death warrant. “In the 12 years I’ve been here, it’s not come up,” he said.
Jacksonville attorney Gerald Bettman, who has represented Van Poyck in various appeals, voiced frustration at his predicament. He runs a two-lawyer office and Van Poyck’s other attorney, Jeff Davis of Milwaukee, Wis., is out of the country.
In a meeting Tuesday with Van Poyck at Florida State Prison, where he has been on death watch since Gov. Rick Scott on Friday signed his death warrant, Bettman said they both agreed Van Poyck needs more legal muscle than Bettman or Davis can provide. Bettman filed a motion with both the Florida Supreme Court and Palm Beach County Circuit Judge Charles Burton, asking that attorneys be appointed to represent Van Poyck.
“Even in the event that (I) desired to represent Van Poyck, the death warrant was issued at a time wherein (I am) unable to provide the necessary time and expense on his behalf without incurring extreme hardship,” he wrote.
Burton is to hold a hearing at 1:30 p.m. Thursday on the status of the case. Bettman said he is hopeful that either Burton or the high court will appoint an attorney from the tax-funded Capital Collateral Commission or a private death penalty attorney to handle appeals that could go all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.
With time short, it will be difficult for an attorney to get up to speed. There is a voluminous record of Van Poyck’s 1988 trial and his 11 unsuccessful appeals over the quarter century.
He declined to speculate on whether a court would delay the execution so a new attorney can review the case.
Bettman said Van Poyck has good grounds to get a stay of his execution. The son of an Eastern Airlines executive has long maintained that he didn’t kill Griffis. He blames the death of the 40-year-old decorated Vietnam veteran on fellow ex-con Frank Valdes. Van Poyck enlisted Valdes help to free convicted murderer James O’Brien when he was brought from Glades Correctional Institution to a dermatologist’s office on North Olive Avenue for treatment of skin cancer.
Van Poyck has insisted that Valdes, who he said was hopped up on cocaine and beer, parted from the script he devised and shot Griffis. In unsuccessful appeals, Van Poyck argued that another inmate heard Valdes confess to the killing before Valdes himself was killed by prison guards in 1999. In another appeal, Van Poyck claimed four jurors signed affidavits claiming they wouldn’t have voted to give him the death penalty had the prosecution not said he was the triggerman.
The state Supreme Court has rejected all of his appeals. Pointing out that Van Poyck by his own admission was “the instigator and major participant in the crime”, the high court ruled that he would have been sentenced to death even if it had been proven he hadn’t fired the fatal shots.