Update: The State of Florida executed Bill Van Poyck tonight at 7 p.m. est. Britta contacted us minutes after the execution saying, "He's Free." Britta attended the vigil along with Bill's sister, Lisa, a group of friends and other abolitionists including 2 former Florida death row prisoners who were later exhonerated and released.
- Axis of Logic
Editor's Note: William (Bill) Van Poyck is scheduled to be executed by the State of Florida tomorrow, June 12, 2013. Florida has had the highest number of prisoners on death row who were later exhonerated. Axis of Logic columnist, Britta Slopianka has been engaged in the fight to abolish the death penalty in the United States for many years. She began corresponding with Bill years ago when he was on death row in Virginia and she lived in Germany, her native country.
Often, the first (or only) thing people want to know when hearing of a state execution is about the crime - as though that is all there is to know about the person who's life their government is about to take. This is probably more true in the United States where people have been immersed in a culture of individualism, competition, class war, racial hatred - and revenge. In 1987, Bill was convicted in the murder of Fred Griffis, a Florida State Prison guard during an escape attempt. The man who actually killed the prison guard, Frank Valdez, also received the death sentence but he was beaten to death in 1999 by prison guards while on death row. The guards were never convicted of their crime. Bill was then moved to Virginia's death row where Britta began to write to him and later he was returned to the Florida State Prison where he awaits execution tomorrow. Britta has been writing to and visiting people on America's death rows for years but she was never able to meet Bill in person because she is already on another prisoner's visiting list and the State of Florida only allows individuals to be on one list at a time.
- Les Blough, Editor
Britta Slopianka writes:
Tomorrow night, one of my longest term friends in the United States will be executed. There is not much hope for a stay. He has spent 40 years of his life in prison, half of them on Florida's death row and he is one of the people in my life who inspired me to begin my journey to fight for justice for people condemned to death in the U.S. I began writing to Bill when I was still living in Germany, before I moved to the U.S. and I have since also come to know his family.
While in prison, Bill began to honestly confront himself and his past and he turned his life around. During his early years in prison Bill obtained his high school education, later became a paralegal and he has since written his own appeals and helped other prisoners write theirs. He also authored 3 books, published by PEN (Writers Digest) and won first place honors for one of them. But having learned to know him over the years, I came to appreciate him as a person most of all - his gentle spirit, his peacefulness, his patience to explain and express his thoughts and the ways in which he has always supported his family and friends, becoming a positive force in their lives.
Bill grew up with two siblings, his brother Jeff and his sister Lisa. Lisa also became a friend of mine and stayed with me when she visited Bill in prison. We have supported him and one another over the years, always with the hope that Bill's execution would some day be stayed. Lisa created a blog where she has published some of Bill's letters to her and a petition to save his life. He is scheduled to be executed in Florida tomorrow, June 12 at 6 p.m.
In a biography Bill wrote:
"In January 1956, my mother went to our next-door neighbour's house to look after them, as the entire family was ill with what the doctor told them was the flu. Unknown to the family they were actually suffering from carbon monoxide poisoning. Their father had stuffed up their gas heater's flue to keep out the cold air. My mother decided to sleep overnight with the family because they were not recovering. On 16 January 1956, my father went next door to get my mom when
she failed to show up for breakfast. My dad found the entire family dead, including my mom, from carbonate monoxide poisoning. I was 16 months old at that time." (from Death Row by Xaxier Waterkeyn)
Following his mother's death, life for Bill, his sister Lisa and brother Jeff began to deteriorate. A number of housekeepers came and went during their childhood and some of them had beaten and otherwise abused Bill and Lisa. When Bill was a child of seven years he began to act out with self-destructive behaviors. In 1960 their father remarried but none of the siblings accepted his new wife. Bill's brother Jeff had problems with the law and Bill and Lisa started breaking in and robbing houses. In 1966 the two got caught by the police and sent to Youth Hall, a detention center for young people in trouble. Later, Lisa began to live a "normal life", but Jeff and Bill continued to have conflict with the police and legal authorities. In 1972 Bill got sentenced to life in prison when he was 17 years old. While in prison he got a high school diploma, became a paralegal and he was eventually paroled at age 32.
Bill often told me in his letters about his wish that he could turn back the time, knowing what he knows today, but he was not able to understand that he gave away his chance to live a normal life when he received his parole. However, he never expressed anger in any of his letters and never blamed anyone for where he now, other than himself. A few quotes follow from his letters to Lisa and the first are from the last letter he sent to her:
"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! ...
"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....
"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."
These quotes about his final days before execution, also taken from his letters to Lisa, were picked up and published by the corporate media:
|When an inmate goes missing
We were out on the rec yard when a lieutenant holding a bunch of chains showed up and took Elmer away, and while they didn’t tell him why they were taking him in I knew something was up. When I came back in, his cell was stripped and he was down on the bottom floor of Q-Wing on death watch.
Checking out the systems
Yesterday the prison was locked down all day for the standard “mock execution,” the practice run which occurs a week prior to the actual premeditated killing. For the mock execution they lock down the joint, bring in an array of big wigs, and go through a dry run to make sure the death machine is in working order, everyone on their toes.
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.
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.
"When all comes to all, the most precious element in life is wonder.
Love is a great emotion, and power is power. But both love and power are based on wonder."
- D.H. Lawrence
I will be at the vigil for Bill tomorrow night at the prison, with hope but also knowing that I have to let him go. In one of his letters to me he wrote that he was 40 years in prison and he will soon be free, no prison bars, no shackles, no nightmares.
Also see: "Homicide in Progress. Floridians Protest the Killing of Captive Prisoners!" at Floridians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty.
Britta Slopianka started our section on the Death Penalty at Axis of Logic 7 years ago and has been reporting on executions in the United States, prisoners on death row and their families whom she has come to know over the years. Her column on the Death Penalty appears in the left column of every page of Axis of Logic. Britta moved to the United States from her home in Germany, where she derived her livelihood from her own business. She moved to the U.S., supporting herself independently, in order to work more effectively for abolition of the death penalty and support condemned men and women in the United States. Over the years she has worked as an organizer and activist for abolition and for those on the death rows of the U.S. and in other countries. She visits people condemned to death at the bars of their death row cells, researches news and commentary, tracks the legal status of those condemned and tirelessly works on their behalf. She is Florida Coordinator for The Innocent in Prison Project and is former Chairwoman of The German Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty. You can follow Britta on Tweeter at https://twitter.com/brittaigel.