As exonerated Florida death row inmates Seth Penalver and Herman Lindsey joined a vigil and protest across from the Florida State Prison near Starke Wednesday evening, William van Poyck became the third inmate to be executed in the last eight weeks, and the eighth since Rick Scott became governor in 2011.
Van Poyck, 58, was pronounced dead at 7:24 p.m. Without explanation, the Department of Corrections had changed the time of execution from 6 to 7 p.m. Wednesday. He was convicted of murdering a prison guard during a botched attempt to free another prisoner–a charge he disputed until his death, saying his accomplice, Frank Valdes, had shot the fatal bullet.
He had spent nearly 26 years on death row after his conviction in 1987.
Van Poyck gained notoriety in prison as he turned to writing books–publishing thrtee of them before his death–and maintaining a blog, Death Row Diary, through his sister.
Penalver and Lindsey, who were the featured speakers at a workshop on the death penalty in Flagler Beach in March, have been asking the governor to veto a bill that would fast-track executions in Florida. The bill, called the “Timely Justice Act,” could, if enacted, lead to the execution of 13 people this year alone.
There are 405 people on Florida’s death row as of today. Twenty-six inmates have been exonerated from death row since Florida reenacted the death penalty in 1976.
“If the bill would have been in effect at the time of me being sentenced, I wouldn’t be here talking to you today,” Penalver said in May. Five months ago he was acquitted on triple murder charges after spending 18 years in prison.
“There’s no ifs, ands or buts about it. You’re going to put innocent men to death,” Lindsey said. He was exonerated after three years on death row.
Penalver and Lindsey have been asking to meet with Scott, who has so far declined to do so. Mark Elliott, executive director of Floridians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, has been coordinating the exonerated inmates’ campaign.
Like other state prisoners, van Poyck had no access to the internet. But there are no limits on the number of letters, or the length of letters, he could write. He would write his sister entries designed for his blog. His sister would transcribe them and post them.
Below are his last entries, as of Wednesday, beginning with the one he wrote immediately after Gov. Scott signed his death warrant. The entries, unique in the annals of death row literature, open a stark window into the details of life on death row as the time of execution approaches–including the execution of Elmer Carroll on May 29 and the suicide of an inmate who was not on death row.
The diary entries generated numerous comments, and were not exclusively laudatory or approving. “I would have more sympathy if he would just repent,” one of the more recent commenters wrote, referring to Fred Griffis, the prison guard murdered during the escape attempt. “Griffis brother and sister didn’t put him there. In his own bed that he himself made for himself. Stop blaming others. He made his own destiny. He shot at police trying to escape. People could be dead. not just one person. I hope and pray he doesn’t die for his and your sake. But just stop blaming others. That’s not how a remorseful person acts. My prayers are with Bill and you. Though just as much my prayers are with Fred Griffis and his remaing family. May god have mercy on our souls.”
May 3–Today Governor Scott signed my death warrant and my execution date has been scheduled for June 12th, at 6pm. I wasn’t really surprised when they showed up at my cell door with the chains and shackles; for the last month or so I’ve had a strong premonition that my warrant was about to be signed, but that wasn’t something I wanted to share with you.
Sis, you know I’m a straight shooter, I’m not into sugar coating things, so I don’t want you to have any illusions about this. I do not expect any delays or stays. This is it. In 40 days these folks will take me into the room next door and kill me.
I know this is an impossible request but to the extent you can, please don’t worry about me. You know I am mentally strong, and I’m in a good place spiritually. Right now I’m more concerned about the pain I’m causing you and everyone else who loves me and cares about me. I am ready for this, Sis, and I am at peace. After 40+ years of living in cages I am ready to leave this dead end existence and move on. I leave with many regrets over the people I have hurt, and those I’ve disappointed, and over a life squandered away. My spirit will fly away hugging all the life lessons learned over 58 years on Schoolhouse Earth and with an implacable determination not to repeat these mistakes the next time around.
I know you are sad and hurting, Sis; I wish I could wipe away your tears. Dwell on our good memories from the days of our youth, and hang onto our shared belief that life on this planet is temporary, as our separation will be temporary, and we will be together again in our true Home. Most of all, remember that Love abides and conquers all.
May 12–On Tuesday they came and measured me for my execution/burial suit. Sometime soon I’ll be given the details on how “the body” will be disposed of following the legally required autopsy (will my cause of death really be a mystery?). I understand the State will pay for a cremation should I choose this form of disposal (I do) and my ashes will be available at a Gainesville Funeral home; but don’t quote me on that yet. Discussing the practical aspects of my upcoming death was a little disconcerting, but I took it in stride.
I’ve been on death watch for 10 days now and I have 31 days left to live. (It seems surreal when I write that out, and just as surreal that all those around me accept this as a normal and natural thing). My cell (one of three) is next to the execution chamber so I won’t have far to walk. There’s another guy down here with me, his execution is set for 2 weeks before mine so assuming he doesn’t get a stay I’ll have a front row seat to how the final days and hours play out. Aren’t I lucky?
I gotta tell you, Sis, there’s a big difference between contemplating your death in the abstract and seriously considering it when it’s an absolute, undeniable soon-to-occur fact, when you are counting down the exact days you have left here on Schoolhouse Earth. I got little sleep the first week, perhaps 2 hours a night and then I was up and wide awake at 2:00 a.m., mind racing, thoughts all a-jumble, despite my best breathing and meditation techniques. I’d finally get my mind onto some mundane subject and then, bam!, my gut would knot up as the thought suddenly elbowed its way into my mind, these guys are going to take me next door and kill me in X number of days! This still happens a dozen times a day, and more at night.
When your warrant gets signed so many things suddenly become trivial. I’ve already thrown or given away 95% of my personal property, the stuff that for years seemed so important. All those great books I’ll never get to read; reams and reams of legal work I’ve been dragging around, and studying, for 2 decades and which has suddenly lost its relevance. My magazines and newspapers stack up unread; I have little appetite to waste valuable, irreplaceable hours reading up on current events. Does it really matter to me now what’s happening in the Middle East, or on Wall Street, or how my Miami Dolphins are looking for the upcoming new season? What’s the point? Ditto the TV; I’m uninterested in wasting time watching programs that now mean nothing in the grand scheme of things. The other day I caught myself reaching for my daily vitamin. Really?, I wondered, as the absurdity hit me. Likewise, after 40 years of working out religiously, that’s out the window now. Again, what’s the point? Now, every decision about how to spend the next hour reminds me of Elaine in that Seinfeld episode where she had to constantly evaluate whether her boyfriends were really “sponge worthy.” I spend my time in my spiritual/metaphysical books, or listening to my MP3 player, or meditating/contemplating/reflecting on life’s universal mysteries.
After 10 days on death watch you know what I’ve come away with? This shit isn’t right! On so many levels! I’m not talking about me, about the particulars of my case. I mean across the board, for anyone. This institutionalized and ritualized killing of our fellow human beings, this process which, in its mundane daily regularity seeks to make this very abnormal thing normal and acceptable. It’s sick, and it’s crazy when you actually consider what’s going on. The folks here who are thanklessly tasked with actually carrying it out, they do not like doing it. They see us, talk with us, occasionally laugh and joke with us, on a daily basis, and then one day they have to come in and kill us. This ain’t natural! One day, I pray, we as a nation will have an expansion of consciousness and we’ll ask ourselves how we ever thought this was right.
Today is Mother’s Day, and as I usually do this time of year I open my photo album and look at those old black and white photos of Mom (God, she was beautiful!) and wonder how my life would have turned out differently if she had not died when I was a baby, if I’d had a mother to love me, raise me, guide and nurture me, a mom I could love, look up to, and be determined not to disappoint. These are, for now, unanswerable questions, but when I pass over to the next plane I hope to get some answers. If nothing else I’ll be with Mom and Dad and that is what gives me such peace.
May 19–I’ve got 25 days left to live. It isn’t normal to be able to write something like that, and that sense of surrealism permeates every hour down here. Making a man spend his last six weeks ticking off every minute, hour and day of his life left on earth constitutes cruel and unusual punishment by any definition. And it certainly constitutes, as a matter of law, two of Florida’s statutory aggravating circumstances (used by the state to justify the imposition of death sentences), to wit: 1) the killing is cold, calculated and premeditated; and, 2) the killing is heinous, atrocious and cruel. Although I’ve fully accepted my circumstances, I know it’s going to happen and I’ve come to terms with it, that does not obviate the fact that it just isn’t right to do this to people, and for society to accept this as normal or natural, well, it speaks more about our society than it does about those being so efficiently dispatched down here in the bowels of this penitentiary. Having said that, and on a purely personal note, perhaps it is good for me to endure this, drip by drip, stripe by stripe, in order to indelibly etch this on my spirit, to ensure that in my next life my soul will, through its slumber, vividly recall these long days, will never, ever forget this lesson and I will never repeat the mistakes and poor choices that plagued this life I’m about to surrender. Just a thought…
There are now three of us down here on death watch; all our executions are spaced 2 weeks apart. The guy with senior status (Elmer) is set to die on May 29th, 2 weeks before me. Last week the Florida Supreme Court denied his last-ditch appeal and he’s got no place left to go. He does not know much about the law or court procedures but he told me he knows there is now nothing between him and his date with death. He’s resigned to his fate and I hear him pacing the floor a lot, a pacing that is gradually morphing into a listless shuffling, as if all hope has deflated from his body, like air leaking from a punctured tire. It’s a sad, melancholy sound when you know its context. I choose to remain active, vital and alive, my spirit, intellect and even my humor undiminished, and I’ll remain so until they shoot that poison into my veins and snuff out the candle of this physical vehicle.
I understand there are usually about two dozen witnesses to these executions and I sometimes wonder about those who will be at mine, unknown, faceless men rooting for me to die, happy to see me breathe my last breath. I wonder about men who do not know me, have never met me, never broken bread with me and who know nothing about what’s in my heart, who nonetheless are anxious, eager, happy to see me die. It does not bother me, but I wonder if it will ever bother any of those men (and yes, it’s almost always men, with their lust for blood; women seldom indulge in this), perhaps in their sunset years when they reflect back on their youth and wonder about their imperatives. I hope, for their sakes, that one day they will be ashamed – or at least disappointed – with their naked blood lust and will determine to henceforth set a better example for those following behind them.
May 22–I have 21 days left to live. The fickleness, the arbitrariness, the fleeting nature of life itself is on display daily throughout our world but as good an example as any occurred here on Monday morning when, as I was being dressed out here on Q-Wing for a visit, a sudden radio call brought the wing officers rushing upstairs where they found a prisoner (non-death row) hanging in his cell. After 20+ years in prison this guy (Earl) had finally given in to the utter hopelessness that can seize the heart and spirit of any man mired forever in an American maximum security prison. The irony wasn’t lost on me that while 3 of us on death watch are fighting to live, this poor soul, living just 10 feet above us, stripped of all hope, had voluntarily surrendered his life rather than continue his dismal existence. When nothing but a lifetime of suffering lays ahead – with no hope, no promise, no opportunity to change your fate – the idea of utter annihilation can come to look appealing in contrast. When everything has been taken from you, the one thing you have left, that nobody can take away, is the decision to live or die. In that context choosing death can look like freedom. I’ve been there myself, I understand the depth of despair and regret that can constrict your heart until all hope is wrung out and life itself is a bitter gall caught in your throat. Death, like despair, permeates this wing like a suffocating shroud, this forlorn cellblock with its long and well-traveled history of violent murders, despondent suicides and extended litany of executions.
Today my neighbor, Elmer, went on Phase II of death watch, which begins 7 days prior to execution. They remove all your property from your cell while an officer sits in front of your cell 24/7 recording everything you do. Staff also performs a “dry run” or “mock execution”, basically duplicating the procedures that will occur 7 days later. This is when you know you’re making the final turn off the back stretch, you know your death is imminent, easily within reach, you can count it by hours instead of by days. Right now I’m on deck; when Elmer goes I’ll be up to bat (that’s enough sports metaphors for now).
I just learned today that the Florida Supreme Court, in a 4-3 decision, has denied our motion for a stay of execution and the attorneys’ motions to withdraw, and has ordered these 3 different attorneys to represent me – over their vigorous objections that they are unqualified and unfamiliar with my case – on the eve of my execution. It’s a circus and a farce; nothing like this has happened in Florida and it’s setting a bad precedent. The media are running with the story (Florida is looking really bad in this matter, the butt of jokes in the legal community) but the Supreme Court, or at least 4 of the 7 Justices, are doggedly determined to kill me on June 12, lawyers or no lawyers, and nobody can tell them otherwise. They’ve decided to “pretend” I have legal representation (not competent, or qualified representation, just representation in name only) and let it go at that.
I’m being overwhelmed with letters of support from around the world and across the country, often from people I don’t know, who thank me for positively impacting their lives (or lives of a loved one) through my writings, either my books, or short stories, or the blog posts. I will not be able to reply to all these letters in the short time I have left here on Schoolhouse Earth, but I am moved and humbled by these messages. I am not unusual in wanting to believe, at the end of my line, that my life counted for something good, that I had some positive influence on someone, that my life made a difference, that I was able to at least partially atone for the many mistakes I made earlier in life. There’s not much you can do in that direction from the confines of a cell; writing is about the only available vehicle that can transcend the prison bars. That was the only tool I had, and I tried to use it in a positive, productive manner. These letters tell me I succeeded and that counts for a lot in my heart.
That’s it for now, Sis. Give yourself a big hug for me, and a tummy rub for the doggies!
May 28–Tomorrow Elmer will be executed and I’ll be next up to bat, with 15 days to live. A situation like this tends to make you reflect on the elusive nature of time itself, which some folks – physicists and metaphysicists alike – claim is an illusion anyway. Real or not it sure seems to be going someplace quickly!
This may be my last letter to reach you before you begin your journey down south to be by my side for my final days. These many visits I’ve recently received from those who love me have been a blessing for me. I’m acutely aware that some guys on death watch have absolutely nobody to help them bear their burden during their last days and hours on earth, not a soul willing to share some love. It’s a terrible thing to die all alone… I continue to be inundated with letters of support and love from around the world, many from kind-hearted strangers, and many similar blog posts which you’ve shared with me. Many are very moving, and all are deeply appreciated. I am humbled. While I’ve answered many I simply cannot respond to them all in my allotted time remaining. As my shortening days inexorably telescope down my focus turns ever inward as I wrestle with the timeless questions of the universe that have puzzled man since the dawn of consciousness here on Schoolhouse Earth.
I read in a recent newspaper article that the brother and sister of Fred Griffis, the victim in my case, are angry that I’m still alive and eager for my execution. These are understandable human feelings. I have a brother and sister myself and I cannot honestly say how I would deal with it if something happened to you or Jeff at the hands of another. I have thought of Fred many times over the years and grieved over his senseless death. I feel bad for Fred’s siblings though if seeing another human being die will truly give them pleasure. I suspect when I’m gone, if they search their hearts, they will grasp the emptiness of the closure promised by the revenge of capital punishment. There’s a lot of wisdom in the old saying “An eye for an eye soon makes the whole world blind.”
All is well with me here in the death house. I’ve been blessed with a strong body and a stout mind and spirit, more than sufficient to see me through this final passage. The deep love of others, freely given to me by those I’m honored to call my friends, helps ease the journey. The one thing I am absolutely certain of after 58 years on this rock is that LOVE is the foundation of the cosmos, the very essence of what we call God. This is the one lesson we all must learn, and will learn in due time, and which gives me my peace.
Light & Love,