By Michael Lambrix
The first thing you’ve got to understand is that Billy’s biggest fault was that he just couldn’t turn a friend down when asked no matter what the consequences might be and for that, Billy had to die. It’s just that simple and such naïve concepts as truth or fairness have nothing to do with it, as if they did, Billy’s life would be spared. But in this cold and cruel world we have so deliberately created, only death could purge this intolerable fault from our midst…Billy had to die.
The real irony in all of this is that in taking Billy’s life, the State of Florida will have done something Billy never did; the State of Florida will have made a conscious decision to kill, which, for those of us who actually knew Billy, knew that perhaps Billy’s most admirable trait was that despite the tragic history of his tortured life, that’s one line Billy chose not to cross, period.
When the State of Florida carried out the state-sanctioned “execution” of William (Billy) Van Poyck, it killed a man who has never killed. But under the rule of law, Billy was convicted and condemned to death for the murder of Florida prison guard Fred Griffis in a botched escape attempt in 1987. Billy participated in the event and that made him criminally culpable under Florida’s “felony murder” rule of law that demands that anyone who knowingly participated in a criminal act that results in the death of another is guilty of capital murder even if they do not commit the act resulting in death themselves.
In Billy’s case, the crime was an attempt to break a friend free from a prison transport van. Billy and another friend, Frank Valdes, had both been released from prison months earlier, but their friend (James O’Brien) remained inside and was scheduled for medical transport when Billy and Frank jumped the van as it parked at the doctor’s office. Things quickly got crazy and within that eternal microsecond of chaos, Frank Valdes shot and killed FDOC officer Fred Griffis. They then quickly fled the scene leaving O’Brien in the van.
Both Billy and Frank Valdes stood trial in the southeast Florida rural community of Martin County, and the guards from the local maximum security prison (Martin Correctional) showed up in force so the jury – many of whom knew or were related to prison employees – would know with absolute certainty what was expected of them. The jury found both Billy and Frank guilty of capital murder of a law enforcement officer and had no problem recommending both be put to death.
When Billy’s case received its required review on “direct appeal,” the Florida Supreme Court recognized that Billy did not kill officer Griffis, nor was there any evidence of a preformed intent to kill, nor prior knowledge that anyone would be killed, and the Florida Supreme Court vacated Billy’s conviction of “premeditated” murder. But in a twist that could only come from the distorted “ends justify the means” logic our politically corrupted courts have now become infamous for, the Florida Supreme Court turned around and said, “kill him anyways” as under Florida’s “felony murder” law, it doesn’t matter whether Billy intended anyone die as all that really mattered is that he participated in attempting to free O’Brien from the prison van with Frank Valdes, and although it was clear that Frank shot and killed Officer Griffis, Billy had to pay too.
Even in subsequent appeals, it’s almost certain that Billy would have had his death sentence reduced to life, if not for another event involving Frank Valdes. In July 1999 a rabid pack of prison guards at Florida State Prison went into Frank Valdes’ cell on the infamous “X-wing” and brutally beat Frank to death. I was a couple cells down from Frank and we all know it was just a matter of time, as the courts later recognized in Valdes v Crosby, 450 f.3d.1276 (11th cir. 2006), in the months proceeding the murder of Frank, these pack of prison guards were given free rein to target and brutally assault any prisoner they pleased with the blessing of Warden James Crosby – who himself would subsequently be sent to Federal prison.
As one of the few death-sentenced prisoners who had spent a considerable amount of time on “X-wing” and as a result became personally acquainted with both Billy and Frank Valdes, I knew that it was only too common for the guards to invent reasons to enter their solitary cells and under the pretense of doing a cell search, they would physically assault Billy and Frank, and openly promise both that they would not live long enough to be put to death by the state and that was a promise we all knew they would keep.
Months after beating Frank Valdes to death a guard jury indicted two of the guards for murder, and they eventually stood trial in Bradford County, which has only one industry…the seven local prisons that provide the backbone of this rural northeast Florida community centered around Starke. Every juror admitted to knowing or being related to prison employees and it didn’t surprise anyone that after hearing all the evidence, including other prison employees on testimony detailing the murder of Frank Valdes, the jury still turned around and found all the guards “not guilty.” When asked later how they could acquit the prison guards given the overwhelming evidence, members of the jury could only stutter an implausible explanation, that they had no doubt the guards killed Frank – but they just didn’t know which one of the guards inflicted the fatal blow actually resulting in death and so they found all of them “not guilty”…who says justice has to make any sense?
All of that left Billy in a really bad way. After the guards murdered his co-defendant Frank, the governor’s office ordered Billy transferred to a Virginia prison for his own safety and from there Billy continued to pursue his appeals. Having come to know Billy pretty well through the years prior to his transfer, I never expected to see him again as it seemed certain that Billy’s death sentence would be reduced to life given both the Florida Supreme Court’s own recognition that Billy did not kill anyone, and the evidence that showed Billy did not intend anyone to be killed, as well as the overwhelming evidence of Billy’s tragic life history that his sentencing jury was never allowed to hear.
But that’s not how justice works here in American – someone has to pay and with Frank Valdes now already dead, that only left Billy. To hell with the evidence as only the hopelessly disillusioned would still believe that the inconvenience of truth had anything to do with the administration of “justice,” especially down here in the deep South, where the genetically predisposition towards a good old fashioned lynching is the only way to respond to a crime that upsets the community and so his fate was sealed – Billy had to die, as “justice” demanded no less, especially when Governor Rick Scott is preparing to run for re-election and desperately needs the political support of the prison guards in the upcoming election and although Governor Scott has spent the last three years screwing prison guards out of all he could, by throwing Billy to the wolves, they would now gladly line up to vote for his re-election next November, and he knew it.
Perhaps the greater tragedy in the sacrificial murder of William Van Poyck is that few actually came to know Billy for the person he is and as too many all but openly celebrate his state-sanctioned lynching, they will only know the grossly distorted “facts” of his crime. As with all those condemned to death, our society does not want to know anything about the person they have decided to kill – the less they know, the better, as God forbid “we, the people” should recognize any measure of humanity within those condemned by our own hand.
But I did know Billy as the person and not the perception of the alleged crime and so I am not at all surprised to see that ultimately Billy must die because he could not and would not turn his back on a friend. And when his close friend James O’Brien remained in prison with little hope of ever seeing the real world again, and the opportunity presented itself to give his friend that chance, Billy went along as only a true friend would.
Those of us who actually knew Billy came to realize that Billy just wasn’t cut from the same cloth as most prisoners. Only a few years older than me, Billy was already doing seriously hard time before I even made it into my first year of high school. Back then, doing time meant surviving in the jungle that most maximum security prisons were before this new generation of politically ambitious prison administrators invented the concept of mass confinement of any and all inmates who dared to show any inclination of violence or anything less than absolute submission.
Billy came of age doing hard time in some of the worst prisons our society created, back when violence and death were served as cold and predictable as the cockroach infested grits each morning in the prison chow hall. It wasn’t enough to be physically strong to survive, as strength meant nothing when another crept up behind you and drove the blade of a homemade knife deep down into your flesh. It didn’t matter how big you were, and physically, Billy wasn’t that big of a guy and some might have described him as even small in stature. But as they say down here in the South, it’s not the size of the dog but the size of the heart in the dog and Billy had a lot of heart and even against the odds, would stand his ground against anyone if he knew he was right, and all too often Billy would put his own life on the line to stand up for those who couldn’t. That’s just the kind of person he was.
I’ve know a lot of convicts through the too many years I’ve spent in prison – and a lot more who only too quickly will call themselves “convicts” even though they are not worthy. Billy was old school, and he earned his stripes the hard way. In this world we live in, prison can break the best of them and anyone who tries to tell you it can’t is full of – well, you know. It takes someone with incredible inner-strength, and courage to rise above this cesspool of humanity and remain their own man despite the forces perpetually pushing at you from all sides.
I doubt there would be any words to describe that intangible essence of the inner self that provides that measure of strength within that allows the very few to maintain their own sense of self when others all around them slowly become part of that environment. But anyone who has done hard time will recognize that unique quality and respect of the man who can master it.
It is that measure of the man within that best describes just who Billy was as a person. Billy was a truly gifted writer who often found his means of detaching and compartmentalizing the trauma of his life experience by writing stories about his experiences. One of Billy’s stories, “Death by Dominoes” was posted here on Minutes Before Six. This particular story is a reflection of not only the horrific experiences Billy endured while doing time, but also how he found the strength to rise above it, and despite the probable consequences of intervening in behalf of another prisoner who Billy felt might not be able to stand up for himself, Billy put his own life on the line to do the right thing while the vast majority of inmates around him crawled up under their bunks and did nothing.
But “Death By Dominoes” is only one of countless stories that collectively create the colorful tapestry that is Billy, and there are many of us in prison today who could share similar stories of Billy’s character.
I first came to know Billy not long after he was sentenced to death. Back then, any prisoner who assaulted or killed a prison guard would automatically be kept in a concrete box of a cell on Florida State Prison’s infamous “Q-wing” (later relabeled as “X-wing”). Nobody has really done hard time until you’ve done time on Q-wing and even a short stay on one of those 24 crypts often broke the prisoner forever.
I had been sent to Q-wing after being charged with the infraction of “other assault” for beating a “runner” down with a food tray after the runner got it in his head that I might be his new romantic interest. I wasn’t proud of what I did, but it had to be done, as I had to live in this cesspool and any sign of weakness would result in a fate even for worse than death.
They moved me up to 3 West, with Billy two crypts away – and I deliberately call these cages “crypts” as that is exactly what they are. Unlike regular confinement cells that are “open” (a wall of steel bars) at the front so you can see outside the cell and communicate with your neighbors, each crypt on Q-wing was fully enclosed by thick concrete walls and a solid steel door that when shut – and often it stayed shut – closed out all light, isolating the prisoner just as if he was cast down into a crypt.
Within each crypt was a concrete slab that was the “bunk” and it was not uncommon at all for them to refuse to provide even one of the rodent-infested, generously urinated prison “mattresses,” leaving the prisoner within to sleep on the cold concrete, with the water deliberately shut off and the only means to urinate was to all but blindly feel for that hole in the center of the floor, then remove whatever you stuffed down into it to keep the rats and roaches from coming into the crypt, and remembering to again stuff that newspaper or whatever back in when done.
Few people could possibly imagine the uncompromised hell that Q-wing was, by deliberate design and intent. Its purpose was to unofficially retaliate against those who had dared to assault or kill a prison guard, and the physical conditions was only a small part of it, as it was unwritten policy that the guards assigned to Q-wing, each handpicked by the warden, were all but strongly encouraged to physically abuse the prisoners housed on Q-wing, and they only too often gleefully obliged the warden’s wishes.
I had already known who Billy was, as there aren’t too many secrets in this small world we live in, and we had mutual friends. Billy was easy to get along with and it wasn’t long before we were “talking” for hours – and I mean that’s only in the most abnormal way as it wasn’t easy to talk to anyone on Q-wing. But once you adjusted, it was possible, and we did.
The first thing that caught my attention was Billy’s completely unexpected sense of humor, which was second only to never-ending drive to fight the fight. Where most who find themselves cast down into the depths of hell that Q-wing truly is, would either lay down on their slab of concrete and roll up into a ball in a futile attempt to shut reality out, or simple go mad until the guards get the psych shirts to tranquilize them into a state of mortal numbness, Billy did neither, instead finding his strength in standing his ground by using his knowledge of law to challenge his confinement. But for Billy, being who he was, it wasn’t enough for him to only fight his own fight, but to take on that fight for those around him regardless of the all but certain consequences of his actions.
That was one of the bonds that created a sense of communion between me and Billy that lasted the better part of 20 years – our mutual unquenchable thirst to use our knowledge of law to fight the fight not only for ourselves, but to help those around us and with all respect, I must bow down to Billy’s obviously superior ability and uncompromised tenacity.
It wasn’t long after my relatively short stay on Q-wing when Billy won the law suit he filed on behalf of all those on Q-wing and it forced the prison to finally release these prisoners from their long term Q-wing confinement, and Billy, Frank Valdes, and Thomas Knight were transferred to the regular death-row confinement wings, where they would be in open-front cells and be allowed the privileges extended to death row, such as use of a T.V., radio, buying “canteen” each week, receiving regular “contact” visits and going to rec yard. It was a big victory, but not without consequence, and as the years passed it would become common for Billy, Frank and Knight to be targeted for fabricated disciplinary actions and returned to Q-wing for shorter stays under the pretense of imposing discipline.
Within a few years of Billy’s victory in that lawsuit, our paths once again crossed as both me and Billy began contributing to and became instrumental in the growth of what eventually evolved into Florida’s top prisoner newsletter, known as “Florida Prison Legal Perspectives,” which provided prisoners throughout Florida the means with which to stay informed on changes in prison rules, changes in law relevant to both challenging convictions and parole, and a general information platform on what was going on around the State’s prisons. For years both me and Billy served on the Board of Advisors for FPLP and it thrived, despite prison officials deliberate targeting of the handful of prisoners whose names were associated with FPLP, and even as a number of prisoners who were willing to contribute to FPLP died under suspicious circumstances, such as Enrique Diaz, Billy never backed down from the greater cause and stood his ground to fight the fight on behalf of all prisoners.
During the same period of time a small handful of us on Florida’s Death Row decided it was time to challenge the “totality of conditions,” and despite receiving no assistance from lawyers, we initiated a comprehensive federal lawsuit with Billy contributing countless hours handwriting legal memorandums, and many sleepless nights spent talking about what had to be done, and thanks to the relentless work, we got that case to the Federal Court.
The thing is, we already knew we couldn’t win. We already knew that none of the typical legal organizations such as the ACLU, NAACP, or others were willing to help Florida’s Death Row prisoners as they often did in the other states because they knew the politically corrupted courts in Florida would be hostile to any such action. We went into this project knowing that we were passing into a gale force wind, and there would be hell to pay. But with Billy at the helm, we pushed forward.
We put every ounce of our strength into that lawsuit and the state threw their best lawyers at us. Each of us willing to put our names to it were targeted by both the guards and other Death Row inmates who would do as the guards asked of them (all the while calling themselves “convicts”), but we didn’t sacrifice a single inch of ground and slowly that iceberg itself gave way.
Because of our excellent legal work, our small group of determined souls forced the Federal Court to deny the State’s motion to dismiss/motion for summary judgment (Lambrix/Teffeteller v Duggar, Case No. 89-840-J-as, US Dist Ct and the Federal Court ordered the case into pretrial discovery and suddenly there we were (me, Billy, Robert Teffeteller and Amos King) celebrating the David over Goliath victory. We had won and it was good.
As a result of the Florida prison system now facing a very real threat of being found in violation of laws governing basic living conditions on Florida’s Death Row, and possibly even having Florida State Prison itself condemned and forced to close due to the deplorable conditions, suddenly they took us seriously and began not only re-constructing the Death Row wings at Florida State Prison, but announcing they would build a brand new “modern” Death Row unit at the cost of almost 20 million dollars!
By December 1992 Florida opened its new “modern” Death Row unit at nearby Union Correctional, which had 336 single man confinement cells exclusively for Death Row and the majority of Florida’s Death Row were then transferred to the new unit where we actually had a clean environment to live in that was not infested by rodents and cockroaches, and although still unbearably hot in the summer, it had a heating system that kept us from freezing.
But Billy would not be transferred – he would never set foot in this new unit, and was kept at Florida State Prison until late 1999 when he was transferred to Virginia after guards killed Frank Valdes. Billy would be returned to Florida in 2008 and again at Florida State Prison. Not long after that I was moved back to Florida State Prison under the pretense of “security” reasons, and was able to get a cell next to Billy up until the summer of 2012, when because of my physical disability (disabled veteran) I was moved back to the main death row unit of Union Correctional.
Billy knew his days were numbered as both the State and Federal Courts summarily denied his last appeals, and yet true to his character, Billy was not broken or gave into despair. Instead, he stood his ground and took the punches, never giving an inch.
Perhaps ultimately that is what really angered those who wanted Billy dead the most – no matter how much hell they put Billy through, they could never break him, not even once. Many of the guards came to hold great respect for Billy and would come to his cell to ask legal advice or just talk and Billy never showed any anger or bitterness towards them, not even when one sergeant who previously worked Q-wing and took part in a particularly violent assault upon Billy was temporarily assigned to the Death Row wing. Billy treated him as if it never happened.
It is the nature of the beast that prison will inevitably break the majority of those who are caught in its grasp. But then there are those few who possess supernatural inner-strength and will never be broken, instead remaining who they are consistently and standing their ground unconditionally. Billy was by no means a perfect man, and by society’s standards, Billy probably was an “outlaw” as it’s the only life he ever knew. But for those of us who actually knew Billy for the person he was, by his strength and sense of character, he inspired us. For the even fewer who could call Billy a friend, we were truly blessed by his generous spirit that touched each of our lives. The world that I continue to live in is a small, small world, but it is a better world because of Billy’s willingness to put himself in the line of fire to make it a better place.
In closing, I dedicate a song to Billy that I know will make him smile, as well as all those who have been blessed by knowing Billy…Billy the Kid by Billy Dean.
Michael Lambrix was executed
by the State of Florida on October 5, 2017
by the State of Florida on October 5, 2017