Were Fred Griffis my father or brother, I’d probably have wanted William Van Poyck dead, too.
It wouldn’t matter a bit that Van Poyck might not have been the triggerman; or that, according to his sister, he’d been viciously abused as a child, both by the housekeepers who cared for him after his mother’s death and, later, by the guards at the notorious Florida School for Boys at Okeechobee; or that his accomplice, Frank Valdes, was brutally beaten to death in 1999 by a cadre of death row guards (later acquitted by a jury of their prison-town peers); or that his lawyers were spectacularly incompetent (one was, reportedly, a formerly disbarred cocaine addict who never corresponded with his client); or that Van Poyck claimed a spiritual awakening in prison, in which “he came to realize that the very fabric of the universe is love,” as Lisa Van Poyck, William’s sister, recently told me.
For damn sure I wouldn’t give a holy rat’s ass that Van Poyck became a celebrated death row author, churning out two novels, a memoir and a poignant blog, “Death Row Diaries,” which Lisa helped publish. I’d want justice – or maybe vengeance, or at least for the goddamned 26-year ordeal to finally be over.
On June 12, the family got its wish. Van Poyck, after more than 25 years, had his date with the needle.
Back in 1987, Van Poyck had only been out of prison a year or so – following a lengthy stint for armed robbery – when he concocted a harebrained scheme to bust a buddy out of prison while he was being transported to a dermatologist’s office in West Palm Beach. When it went south, Griffis, a 40-year-old retired Army Ranger who’d just started as a corrections officer, took one bullet to the head and two to the chest. Under Florida’s felony murder law – and certainly to Griffis’ family – it was irrelevant whether Van Poyck or Valdes fired the fatal shot.
Van Poyck was the 77th man the state has executed since resuming capital punishment in 1979, and the third this year. (By the time you read this, serial killer Marshall Lee Gore may have become the fourth.) And because of a new law Gov. Rick Scott signed earlier this month, at least a dozen more may soon find their way to the death chamber.
The so-called Timely Justice Act of 2013 was crafted to address the sometimes-lengthy durations between capital crime and punishment. (Though Florida’s death row waiting periods are lower than the national average.) The law requires the governor to sign a death warrant within 30 days after the inmate exhausts his appeals, and then requires an execution within 180 days after that. If the condemned uncovers new evidence after that, well, too bad, so sad.
The first, most obvious objection is that, since the 1970s, the state has exonerated 24 death row inmates (and soon, considering recent DNA testing in the case against Clemente Aguirre, perhaps 25), far and away more than any other state. Some of them – such as Juan Melendez, who was on death row for 16 years before a defense investigator tracked down exculpatory evidence – would probably be dead had this law been in effect.
Van Poyck’s guilt was never really in doubt. Still, his case illustrates some of the perpetually troubling aspects of Florida’s capital punishment system, which this law does nothing to fix: Florida, for instance, is one of just two states that don’t require unanimous jury votes for death sentences (one juror voted to spare Van Poyck). And like many other condemned men, Van Poyck was poor, which meant he had to rely on court-appointed attorneys whose quality is too often, in a word, atrocious. (No, the $400,000 pittance the law throws at the problem won’t do anything to ameliorate a fundamentally broken system.)
When you’re in a hole, the answer isn’t to dig faster.
I object to the death penalty for the usual reasons: it’s expensive and inefficient, racist in application, and caters to a societal bloodlust we should be evolving beyond. But if we’re going to do it, the least we can do is offer the condemned every opportunity to prove their innocence, even if it drags things out a couple months or years.
Death, after all, is forever.
Follow Jeffrey C. Billman on Twitter: @jeffreybillman