For 26 years, Carolyn Martin and Ronald Griffis have waited for justice for their brother, a Glades Correctional Institution guard who was gunned down outside a West Palm Beach doctor’s office in 1987 by two ex-cons intent on busting a buddy out of prison.
Today, as the clock ticked toward the scheduled June 12 execution of William Van Poyck, they came to a Palm Beach County courtroom to find out what legal maneuvers might allow their brother’s killer to live.
“A quarter-century is a long time,” said Martin, who, like other family members, idolized her older brother, Fred Griffis, a decorated Vietnam War veteran.
Despite pleas today from Van Poyck’s attorney that he is incapable of representing the condemned murderer through complex, high-stakes last-minute appeals, Circuit Judge Charles Burton showed no interest in derailing the execution.
“This is not an unanticipated event,” Burton said of Gerald Bettman’s claims that he represented Van Poyck as a favor and never imagined he would be forced to handle his appeals under the strict deadlines that are set after a death warrant is signed.
“Before you execute someone you have to appoint a lawyer who is competent,” Bettman replied.
But, Burton said, the matter is out of his hands. “Any beef you have is with the Florida Supreme Court, not me,” he said.
The high court on Wednesday rejected Bettman’s so-called “notice of non-representation” and ordered him to handle Van Poyck’s case.
The 58-year-old son of an Eastern Airlines executive was convicted of killing Fred Griffis in a botched attempt to free convicted murderer James O’Brien. Griffis was shot to death outside a North Olive Avenue dermatologist’s office where he was delivering O’Brien for skin cancer treatment. Van Poyck has long maintained his sidekick, Frank Valdes, who was killed by prison guards in 1999, fired the fatal shots.
“You’re putting a mule in a horse race,” Bettman told Burton when the judge refused to let him off Van Poyck’s case. After the hearing, Bettman filed yet another appeal with the Supreme Court, calling its decision “a travesty.”
Other attorneys who specialize in death penalty cases called Bettman’s predicament unprecedented. “It’s shocking to me that they’re going to force an attorney who is unqualified to handle the appeals,” said Martin McClain, one of the state’s top death penalty defense attorneys.
The high court, he said, is ignoring its own rulings. In 1990, it granted a stay of execution for Paul Scott, who is on Death Row for the 1978 bludgeoning death of Boca Raton florist James Alessi. It allowed Scott’s volunteer lawyer to withdraw from the case and agreed a new court-appointed lawyer needed more time to prepare Scott’s appeals.
However, attorney Celia Terenzio, who represents the state, said the high court in February rejected a stay for a condemned inmate for similar reasons. In its ruling, the court wrote: “If this court were to allow the last-minute substitution of counsel to create a situation in which the entire case could be re-litigated at the time the death warrant was signed … this could become a standard delay tactic in any death warrant case.”
But, Bettman said, in that case, the inmate had been represented for years by a court-appointed lawyer. He said he was never appointed to represent Van Poyck. Running a two-lawyer office, he said it will be impossible to meet a Tuesday deadline to craft an appeal. Burton suggested he seek help from attorney Jeffrey Davis, a civil litigator who works for Quarles & Brady, an international law firm, and has represented Van Poyck in the past.
Davis, of Milwaukee, Wis., is out of the country. His associates have offered to help, Bettman said. “They ask me what I want them to do and I tell them I don’t know,” he said.
The siblings of Griffis offered no opinion about Bettman’s efforts to get off the case. If successful, it would likely delay Van Poyck’s execution. “I’m sure he’s trying his best to perform his ethical obligations as an attorney,” Ronald Griffis said. But, he added, he believes at long last Van Poyck’s days are numbered. “I’m confident that we’ll have closure soon,” he said.
Bettman agreed. “I think they’re going to kill him.”