Murder, America's Favorite Pastime
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“Robert Waterhouse was scheduled for execution at 6:00pm this evening,” Van Poyck wrote to his sister in 2012. “In accordance with the established execution protocol he was strapped to the gurney and the needles were inserted into each arm about 45 minutes prior to his appointed time. Just before 6:00, however, he received a 45-minute stay which morphed into an almost 3-hour endurance test as he remained on the gurney as the seconds, minutes and then hours slid by at an excruciatingly slow pace, waiting for someone to tell him if hope was at hand, if he would live or die. Just before 9:00 he received his answer, the plungers were depressed, the syringes emptied and he was summarily killed.”
“Here on the row we can discern the approximate time of death when we see the old white Cadillac hearse trundle in through the back sally port gate to pick up the body, the same familiar 1960s era hearse I’ve watched for almost 40 years, coming in to retrieve the bodies of murdered prisoners, which used to happen on a regular basis back when I was in open population,” he went on. “I’ve seen a lot of guys, both friends and foes, carted off in that old hearse. Anyway, pause for a moment to imagine being on that gurney for over three hours, the needles in your arms. You’ve already come to terms with your imminent death, you are reconciled with the reality that this is it, this is how you will die, that there will be no reprieve. Then, at the last moment, a cruel trick, you’re given that slim hope, which you instinctively grasp. Some court, somewhere, has given you a temporary stay. You stare at the ceiling while the clock on the wall ticks away. You are totally alone, not a friendly soul in sight, surrounded by grim-faced men who are determined to kill you. Your heart pounds, your body feels electrified and every second seems like an eternity as a Kaleidoscope of wild thoughts crash around franticly in your compressed mind. After 3 hours you are drained, exhausted, terrorized, and then the phone on the wall rings and you’re told it’s time to die. To me this is cruel and unusual punishment by any definition.”
Van Poyck was convicted in the death of a corrections officer in 1987, although he insists he did not pull the trigger. But even if he did, it does not justify murder in the name of justice. Do we rape rapists? Do we sexually abuse pedophiles? Do we beat violent offenders? Do we strike hit-and-run drivers with a moving vehicle? And what if Van Poyck is telling the truth? What if he did not kill the corrections guard? He would not be the first inmate on death row to die for a murder he or she did not commit, especially in Florida. The state has sentenced more people to death than any other in recent decades. It has executed 75 since the death penalty was reinstated in Florida in the 1970s. There have been 24 death row inmates in Florida exonerated—one exoneration for every three executions. Not only might we kill the innocent, we have killed the innocent, as sadly illustrated by contemporary DNA tests that have cleared some of those who were put to death.
“When I heard from Bill’s lawyer about the warrant I lost it,” Van Poyck’s sister told me as she was driving Sunday from Richmond, Va., where she lives, to Bradford County, Fla., to see her brother. “I was on my lunch break. I broke down sobbing and crying. Gov. Scott signed warrants for prisoners who had committed heinous crimes, people who murdered children or serial killers. I thought Bill was safe for a long time. I still have visions of him walking out of there. And now he is in the death watch cell.”