Florida Executes William Van Poyck

This is a developing story. Check back for updates. 

William Van Poyck’s is one of two executions scheduled for tonight. There is another scheduled in Texas, which you can read about here.

Update: The U.S. Supreme Court has denied a stay of execution for Van Poyck, and at this time it appears the execution will proceed as planned.

Update: William Van Poyck has been executed.

The case of William Van Poyck has been a bizarre one lately, filled with criticism, concern and bizarre court rulings. However, it appears the execution, scheduled for 7 p.m. this evening, is moving forward as planned after much legal back and forth, the execution took place as planned at 7 p.m. this evening.

Van Poyck, 58, was convicted in the death of corrections officer Fred Griffis, who was fatally shot in a 1987 escape attempt. Van Poyck and another inmate, Frank Valdez, ambushed two guards in a prison van during transport of another prisoner, James O’Brien, who they were trying to free. Van Poyck has always maintained that Valdez, who was later stomped to death by prison guards, was the shooter. From the Palm Beach Post:

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.

But in Florida you don’t have to be the killer to get the death penalty; just being present at a murder is enough, and the Florida Supreme Court ruled that he would have received the death penalty even if it was proven that he was not the triggerman.

While many of his appeals had asked for a stay based on his claims of not being the shooter, the main sticking point in the recent legal haranguing in the case centered on whether his attorneys were capable of defending him effectively and thoroughly.

When Van Poyck’s death warrant was signed in early May, he had two private attorneys who have been representing him pro bono for years. One was Gerald Bettman, who runs a two-man law office in Jacksonville and has represented Van Poyck since around 1995. The other was Milwaukee-based Jeff Davis, who is not a criminal defense attorney and was out of the country when the warrant was signed. Both men said they were unable to represent Van Poyck effectively, and Bettman filed a motion asking that they be taken off the case, saying he has never had to represent someone during the numerous, and critical, appeals that are filed after a warrant is signed.

“I’ve got to figure all this out and I don’t even know the routes,” he told the Palm Beach Post.

The two asked instead that the court appoint attorneys from the Capital Collateral Commission or a private death penalty attorney 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,” Bettman wrote.

But Palm Beach County Judge Barry Cohen, who signed on behalf of Circuit Judge Charles Burton, ruled on May 7 that Bettman had waited too long to file the motion and passed the buck on to the higher court. From the Post:

“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.

However the Florida Supreme Court also rejected Bettman’s motion to withdraw as counsel. The justices gave no reason, but the ruling was a surprise to some death penalty experts. From the Post:

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.

And then things got even more bizarre.

In a surprising turn of events, the Florida Supreme Court reversed its decision, ruling that Bettman alone shouldn’t have to represent Van Poyck in the post-warrant appeals. Instead, they sent the case back to Judge Burton, and essentially ruled that all 14 lawyers who had ever filed appeals for Van Poyck were still his attorneys. They ordered Burton to review the qualifications of all 14 and decide who was the most qualified to be his counsel.

“I’m a little surprised by the turn of events,” McClain told the Post after learning he could be part of Van Poyck’s defense team. “On one hand, there seems to be a recognition that there’s a problem with the case, but I’m not sure casting a wide net will solve it.”

The article continues:

He [McClain] suspects some of the attorneys, like him, know little about the case. He said he was involved tangentially in a 2007 appeal that was handled primarily by out-of-state lawyers.

The high court’s wide-ranging order violates its own rulings, he said.

In similar cases, it allowed volunteer lawyers such as like Bettman to withdraw after a death warrant was signed. State-funded death penalty lawyers were then appointed to handle the appeals. Lawyers who represented Van Poyck, 58, for free have no obligation to remain on the case, he said.

“They are trying to create an obligation that should offend every defense lawyer in the state. It flies in the face of public policy to encourage pro bono work,” he said. What lawyer, he asked, would volunteer to help out the state by representing a Death Row inmate for free if they are faced with the prospect of handling the flurry of appeals after a death warrant is signed?

McClain has a point. The ruling seems to suggest any attorney who files any appeal for a death row inmate could possibly be pulled back in later to represent them during one of the most critical phases, regardless of experience or familiarity with the case.

But back to the ruling: Judge Burton was ordered to hold a hearing reviewing the 14 attorneys and at the end of the two-hour proceeding on May 13, he appointed not one, but three lawyers to counsel Van Poyck, despite all three of them protesting that they were unable to do so. Burton kept Van Poyck’s original attorneys, Bettman and Davis, on the case, and added the help of  Tallahassee attorney Mark Olive. The three men had a deadline of the following Friday, four days after the ruling, to file motions that could spare their client.

Olive, who is one of the state’s top death penalty attorneys, said he had the legal know-how to serve as counsel, but knew almost nothing about the case and wouldn’t be able to get up to speed in such a short time.

Currently, none of the attorneys’ subsequent appeals have succeeded, but there are still filings that are pending. On Wednesday, June 6, Mark Olive filed a renewed motion for a stay, citing the following issues:

1. A motion for a stay that was filed on May 24 has not been ruled upon

2. Newly discovered evidence of Frank Valdez confessing that Van Poyck’s attorneys need time to investigate

3. A ruling on May 23 in 11th Circuit Public Defender v. State of Florida on defense attorney ethics should prohibit his representing Van Poyck.

No opinions have been released so far on these motions But on Wednesday he U.S. Supreme Court denied a stay of execution and the execution moved forward at 7 p.m. local time at Florida State Prison in Starke. The execution was originally scheduled for 6 p.m. but was delayed to allow Governor Rick Scott enough time to return to Tallahassee from a funeral in Illinois.

According to the Sun Sentinel, Van Poyck was served a breakfast of oatmeal and eggs at 5 a.m., in what was his first warm breakfast in years. All inmates are allowed to request a last meal that’s served at 10 a.m. but Van Poyck declined one. He spent his last day visiting with his sister, four female friends and his spiritual adviser. More from the article:

Van Poyck also refused the normal course of chemicals, which begins with a sedative, Lisa Van Poyck said. She said he would only be given highly concentrated potassium chloride to stop his heart.

“He wants to be clear of mind,” she said. “He wants to be focused on one thing.”

In three hours visiting with friends and family, Van Poyck didn’t say what that one thing would be.

But if she had to guess, his sister said, it would probably be his parents, the idea of love and his favorite color, purple.

Van Poyck was declared dead at 7:24 p.m., 23 minutes after the procedure began.

He was the 77th person executed in Florida since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976. According to the Palm Beach Post, “Van Poyck is the fourth inmate to be executed since December, the most that have been executed in such short order since 2006.”

Related Reading: 

Dispatches From Death Row: William Van Poyck

“I Have 21 Days Left To Live”: Counting Down To An Execution

Lawyers ordered to defend Van Poyck in death-sentence appeal say they lack time, resources

‘They’re going to kill him,’ attorney for condemned killer says as judge refuses to delay execution

Attorneys for death row inmate who killed local prison guard want off the case

Lawyer with little experience can’t withdraw at 11th hour from death-penalty defense, judge says

Attorney told by local judge, state supreme court he must represent death row inmate

High court reverses ruling on Palm Beach County Death Row case lawyers

Van Poyck: FL’s Bizarre Death Penalty Farce Continues

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