Man set to be executed for prison guard's murder
Published: Tuesday, June 11, 2013 at 9:30 a.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, June 11, 2013 at 9:30 a.m.
MIAMI — William Van Poyck argues he doesn't deserve to be executed for the murder of prison guard Fred Griffis, insisting he didn't fire the fatal shots. Griffis' family says even if that's true, it doesn't matter — they say he planned the botched 1987 attempt to free an inmate Griffis was escorting to a dermatologist and made sure he and his partner were armed.
Van Poyck, 58, is scheduled to die by lethal injection Wednesday at Florida State Prison in Starke, the second of three executions scheduled within four weeks. In his appeals, Van Poyck has argued that his partner, Frank Valdes, fired the fatal shots and that if the jury had known that, he wouldn't have been sentenced to death. The Florida Supreme Court last week rejected his latest appeal involving Valdes' widow, who says her husband told her he was the shooter. The justices noted that Van Poyck planned the escape attempt and he and Valdes carried loaded weapons. Courts have rejected similar arguments in the past, including one from a former inmate who also said Valdes confessed to killing Griffis.
Van Poyck "was in on the escape but he didn't know the other guy was going to kill anybody," said Gerald Bettman, his attorney.
Ronald Griffis, the victim's younger brother, said that's irrelevant — Van Poyck is responsible for the death of his brother, a decorated Vietnam War veteran.
"Van Poyck is the one who planned it so everything that happened is a direct result of his intent," Ronald Griffis said.
Van Poyck, Valdes and James O'Brien had served time together at various Florida state prisons for violent crimes. O'Brien was serving a life sentence for the death of an accomplice during a 1976 robbery and Van Poyck was also doing life for robbery with a deadly weapon. Van Poyck, under an old Florida law, was released on parole in late 1986, however.
A 1987 police report said Van Poyck and O'Brien had become good friends while working together in the Florida State Prison law library and that Van Poyck, who had become respected by other inmates for his legal knowledge, had become obsessed with getting O'Brien out of prison on appeal or parole. The report said Van Poyck had told another inmate that if that failed, he would help O'Brien escape.
Griffis' murder happened on June 24, 1987, less than a year after Van Poyck' release from prison. He and another guard were taking O'Brien by prison van from Glades Correctional Institution to the doctor in downtown West Palm Beach to be treated for skin cancer. Van Poyck and Valdes ambushed the van in the parking lot and forced the guards out at gunpoint. Griffis flicked the keys into the bushes in an attempt to keep O'Brien locked in the van. He was escorted to the back of the van, shot three times and killed.
Van Poyck then fired several rounds into the van's lock, trying to free O'Brien but failed. The ricocheting bullets wounded the other guard. With Valdes behind the wheel, they fled in a Cadillac, with Van Poyck firing shots at pursuing police officers. They were arrested after Valdes crashed into a tree.
Van Poyck and Valdes were sentenced to death for Griffis' murder, though Van Poyck has always said Valdes fired the shot that killed Griffis.
The two were tried separately and at each trial, the surviving prison guard pointed at Van Poyck and said he was the shooter, but then said Valdes was the triggerman during Valdes' trial, said Bettman.
The pair was repeatedly confined to X Wing, one of Florida State Prison's toughest solitary confinement units. In the early 1990s, Van Poyck filed a lawsuit challenging his treatment and conditions in X Wing, and the department settled with him for $45,000.
Valdes was stomped to death at Florida State Prison in 1999. Seven guards were initially charged with his death. Three were acquitted of second-degree murder in a trial in the same small county as the prison and then charges were dropped against the other four.
After Valdes' death, Van Poyck was moved to Sussex State Prison in Virginia for his safety. That's where he wrote a 324-page book, "A Checkered Past: A Memoir," saying his purpose was not to elicit sympathy but "to put a human face on me and convicts in general."
His mother died of accidental carbon monoxide poisoning and his father worked long hours for Eastern Airlines executive in Miami. By age 11, Van Poyck was breaking into neighborhood homes. By the time he was 17, he had moved up to armed robbery, auto theft and burglary.
"My entire life — since age 11 — has been spent behind bars, confined like a beast in the zoo, with my highest aspiration being not to let the authorities break my spirit. And now I'm destined to die in prison, lost and forgotten, put to death by society like a rabid dog. I've sunk as low as it is possible to go, and life itself is utterly pointless. What the hell is wrong with me," he wrote.
At the end of the book, Van Poyck takes responsibility for Griffis' slaying, writing "an innocent man is dead for no good reason."
O'Brien, the inmate Van Poyck was trying to free, is still imprisoned but Florida transferred him to Arizona.
As Van Poyck's scheduled execution nears, the Griffis family says they are frustrated that news media stories constantly focus on Van Poyck, the crime and his book and not their relative. They don't plan to attend the execution and will instead gather somewhere for quiet reflection about Fred Griffis' life.
"When he was murdered, it basically ripped a hole in the family's heart that's never really healed," Ronald Griffis said.
He said his brother was always looking out for others. He was released on medical discharge after his first tour in Vietnam, but re-enlisted for two more because he felt he could help. In his final moments, he was determined not to let a killer escape.
"I knew that even at the end, he was still my brother, he was still Freddy, that's who he was. He protected others," Ronald Griffis said.
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