Killer of Fla. CO to be executed 40 years after murders
He will be executed for the 1980 fatal stabbing of Death Row state corrections Officer Richard Burke, killed couple in '75
By David Ovalle
MIAMI-DADE, Fla. — Four decades after kidnapping a Bay Harbor Islands couple and shooting them execution-style in the woods of South Miami-Dade, Thomas Knight will be put to death by lethal injection on Tuesday night.
Only two inmates have been on Florida's Death Row longer than Knight, 62, who was first sentenced to die in 1975 for the murder of Sydney and Lillian Gans.
Knight, however, will be executed Tuesday at 6 p.m. for a third murder: the 1980 fatal stabbing of Death Row state corrections Officer Richard Burke.
Nonetheless, the surviving relatives of the Ganses have the option to attend the execution at the Florida State Prison in Starke. But their daughter, Harriet Shapiro, 73, has chosen not to attend because of her ailing health, son Judd Shapiro said on Monday.
Long court battles and frequent delays over the decades have been stressful for his mother, Shapiro said.
"It's been so many times now, she's beginning to lose faith in the system," Judd Shapiro said of the frequent delays and court battles over the decades.
Knight, who legally changed his name years ago to Askari Abdullah Muhammad, was most recently slated to be executed on Dec. 3 for the Burke murder. The Shapiros had planned to attend.
But several weeks before the execution, the Florida Supreme Court issued a stay, ordering a Bradford County judge to flesh out concerns over a new drug being used to lethally inject inmates.
Knight's lawyers contended that the Valium-like sedative midazolam hydrochloride was unsafe and violated a constitutional ban on cruel and unusual punishment. The drug, which has so far been employed during two recent executions, is used as a sedative before two other drugs induce paralysis and cardiac arrest.
But the Florida Supreme Court on Dec. 19 ruled that Knight failed to show that the drug "presents a serious risk of needless suffering." The stay was lifted. Gov. Rick Scott rescheduled the execution for Tuesday.
"It's a shame for the family that had to live through this nightmare for so many years," said retired Miami-Dade homicide detective Greg Smith, who worked on the case and will attend the execution. "Forty years is a lifetime for the sons and daughters who were close to the Gans family and the officer from the Florida State Prison."
On Monday, the state's high court denied a final request by Knight's lawyers to stay the execution. His lawyers are also appealing to a federal appeals court in Atlanta, as well as the U.S. Supreme Court.
When he was a free man, Knight was a brutal killer.
He was already a parolee in July 1974 when Sydney Gans gave him a second chance.
Gans, 64, owned a successful paper bag company and a minor league baseball team, the Miami Beach Flamingos. He also served as a leader at his synagogue.
He hired Knight, who worked for the company for only 10 days before he kidnapped his boss at riflepoint.
Knight forced Gans to drive his Mercedes-Benz to the businessman's Bay Harbor Islands home, where Lillian Gans was also abducted. The three drove to downtown Miami, where Knight made Sydney Gans walk into a bank and withdraw $50,000.
Wielding a semiautomatic .30-caliber carbine, Knight held Lillian Gans hostage in the back of the businessman's car. Inside, Gans alerted the bank manager, who called authorities.
Gans, fearing for his wife's safety, returned to the car. Law enforcement mobilized. FBI agents and police officers covertly tailed the car as Knight ordered Gans to drive to Southwest Miami-Dade.
But there was no rescue. In a lapse that still angers the Gans family, agents lost track of the car.
Knight drove to a remote wooded area at Southwest 132nd Street and 117th Avenue, where he shot Sydney and Lillian Gans, each with a bullet to the neck. He vanished as heavily armed officers swarmed the woods.
For hours, authorities scoured the woods. Teargas was deployed. A deputy found Knight buried in the mud, the money and the rifle underneath his body.
Jail did not stop Knight's crime spree.
Not long after his arrest, Knight and a group of inmates punched a hole through a wall of the Dade County Jail. While on the lam for 101 days, he was suspected of involvement in a Georgia robbery that killed a shopkeeper; he was never charged.
Finally, agents burst in on him holed up in a New Smyrna Beach shack. A chest of drawers saved agents because it fell on Knight, preventing him from grabbing a shotgun that was loaded and cocked.
A jury convicted Knight in 1975. A judge sent him to Death Row.
While there in October 1980, Knight thrust a sharpened spoon into the chest of corrections officer Burke, 48. The reason: The prison would not let Knight see his mother, who was making her first visit.
His first execution date was originally set for March 3, 1981. "How can you execute me when I haven't even had my trial yet about killing the guard?" the prison's superintendent later recalled Knight saying.
A federal judge later stayed the execution. Knight was found guilty of the Burke murder and was sentenced to die in January 1983.
But five years later, a federal appeals court reversed the death sentence for the Gans murders. The reason: Knight should have been allowed to present character and background witnesses during a penalty hearing.
Knight's 1996 re-sentencing was held under heavy security. The reason: He proved too disruptive to keep in the courtroom, hollering and cursing daily at the judge and lawyers.
At one point, he told a Miami-Dade judge: "This isn't Hollywood. I am no entertainer. You are Satan, evil, a snake, corrupt and want to poison me."
Jurors recommended the death penalty and the judge agreed, returning him to Death Row for the Miami-Dade murders.
In November 2012, a Miami federal judge threw out the death sentence, this time because a Miami-Dade homicide detective in the 1996 re-sentencing recounted the words of a police helicopter pilot who never testified in previous court hearings. That, U.S. Judge Adalaberto Jordan ruled, violated Knight's right to confront and cross-examine witnesses.
In September, a federal appeals court reversed Jordan and restored the death sentence for the Gans murders.
"To learn about the gridlock and inefficiency of death penalty litigation, look no further than this appeal," the opinion said.
Copyright 2014 The Miami Herald
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