High court denies stay for Fla. death row author

STARKE, Fla. (AP) — The U.S. Supreme Court denied a stay of execution Wednesday for a Florida man who, in an attempt to free a prisoner, orchestrated a prison van ambush in 1987 that left a guard dead.

William Van Poyck (pronounced poyk) was set to die by lethal injection at 7 p.m. Wednesday EDT at the Florida State Prison for the murder of prison guard Fred Griffis. His case has garnered international attention because Van Poyck published three books and maintained a blog while on death row.

The 58-year-old Van Poyck declined a final meal and visited Wednesday with his sister, four friends and a spiritual adviser.

Van Poyck and Frank Valdes ambushed a prison van outside a West Palm Beach doctor’s office in a failed attempt to free James O’Brien. Griffis was fatally shot after he threw the van’s keys into the bushes to foil the escape. Van Poyck and Valdes were captured following a car chase.

In his appeals, Van Poyck argued that 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 Van Poyck’s 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 that 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, Valdes and O’Brien had served time together at various Florida state prisons for violent crimes.

In 1999, Valdes was stomped to death in prison. Seven guards were charged with his death, but none were convicted.

Following Valdes’ death, Van Poyck was moved to Sussex State Prison in Virginia for his safety. That’s where he wrote a 324-page autobiography, “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.”

Van Poyck went on to write two novels. He won awards for his writing and has kept a blog since 2005 — he writes letters to his sister Lisa Van Poyck and she posts them online.

“He is deeply remorseful for the ending of Fred Griffis’ life,” Lisa Van Poyck told The Associated Press on Tuesday. “He is guilty of a crime of trying to break somebody out of a prison transport van — he had no intention of hurting anyone.”

Lisa Van Poyck, who traveled to Starke, Fla., this week to meet with her brother for the final time, had been hoping for a last-minute stay from the high court.

“He’s not the man that he was when this crime was committed,” she said.

In his blog, Van Poyck wrote in recent entries that he has received dozens of letters a day regarding his pending execution.

“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,” he wrote.

During interviews, Griffis family members said they were frustrated that news stories constantly focus on Van Poyck, the crime and his writings and not their slain 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,” said brother Ronald Griffis.

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.

Said Ronald Griffis: “I knew that even at the end, he was still my brother, he was still Freddy, that’s who he was. He protected others.”

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