Not much is written in the way of obituaries for people who are put to death. They are convicted criminals; many are guilty of unspeakable cruelty.
We hear of death row cases when controversy swirls about a prisoner's guilt, as was the case of Troy Davis, the Georgia man executed in 2011 despite the recanting of numerous witnesses whose testimony helped convict him. Or when a crime is so heinous that it gains notoriety for the perpetrator, such as serial killer Ted Bundy, who confessed to 30 murders.
William Van Poyck's story was known for another reason.
Sentenced for murder in 1988, he spent 25 years in jail before he was declared dead at 7:24 p.m. Wednesday by lethal injection in a Florida prison. But it was not his sordid criminal narrative that drew international attention. It's what he accomplished from his tiny cell.
Death row inmates deal with their demons in different ways. Some clutch their faith. Others draw or paint or read voraciously. Van Poyck chose to write.
He published three books, wrote his own appeals and penned long letters to his sister, Lisa. He mused over many things -- corrupt politicians, hurricanes and movies. He liked "The Aviator," the Howard Hughes biopic.
By no means does that take away from his guilt.
He and an accomplice, Frank Valdes, ambushed a prison van in 1987 outside a West Palm Beach doctor's office. Their intention was to free James O'Brien, an inmate with whom Van Poyck and Valdes had served time.
Their attempt failed but ended in the fatal shooting of prison guard Fred Griffis.
Van Poyck took the stand in his own defense in an attempt to be spared from what was then the mode of execution: the electric chair. He admitted to a lot of things but denied he'd been the trigger man.
He was convicted of first-degree murder and spent time in a Virginia prison -- moved there for his own safety -- before he was brought back to Florida's death row.
Griffis' family and friends said this week that justice had finally been served and voiced frustration that Van Poyck had received so much attention because of the words he penned in prison.
Acknowledgment of that writing does not equal tribute for a man who committed murder. But Van Poyck gave us something rare: an unfettered glimpse into the mind of a man who was scheduled to die.
In 2005, Lisa Van Poyck began publishing her brother's letters on a blog called "Death Row Diary." Some of the more powerful entries are the last ones, after Van Poyck's death warrant was signed and he learned the date that he would die.
His May 28 letter, his last entry on the blog, begins like this:
Tomorrow Elmer will be executed and I'll be next up to bat, with 15 days to live. (Elmer Carrol was executed May 29 for the rape and murder of a 10-year-old girl.)
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!
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.
He described what happens after a warrant is signed and a prisoner is put on "death watch":
Today my neighbor, Elmer, went on phase II of death watch, which begins seven 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 seven 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.
He wrote about how everything suddenly became trivial after Florida Gov. Rick Scott signed his warrant, when death became imminent:
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 two 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."