Then-Gov. Bob Graham signed his death warrant. Scheduled execution date: March 3, 1981.
The prison system’s superintendent later remembered Knight’s reaction to the news: “How can you execute me when I haven’t even had my trial yet about killing the guard?”
A federal judge later stayed the execution. Knight indeed went to trial for Burke’s murder, and was sentenced to die in January 1983.
By 1987, a federal appeals court threw out the Gans death sentence, ruling Knight should have been allowed to present character and background witnesses during a penalty hearing.
Knight’s 1996 resentencing was held under heavy security.
By then, he had grown a beard and changed his named to Askari Abdullah Muhammad. He proved too disruptive to keep in the courtroom, cursing daily at the judge and lawyers, hollering “ Allahu Akbar!” — “God is great” in Arabic.
The jury, in a 9-3 vote, recommended the death penalty, once again, for the Gans murders. Circuit Judge Rodolfo Sorondo Jr. agreed with the recommendation.
But it was a legal error in that 1996 re-sentencing that paved the way for Knight’s latest successful appeal, U.S. District Judge Adalberto Jordan ruled in November.
At the resentencing hearing , a Miami-Dade homicide detective recounted the words of a police helicopter pilot who never testified in previous court hearings. That, Jordan ruled, violated Knight’s right to confront and cross-examine witnesses.
Why was that testimony so important? The judge pointed out that defense lawyers claimed that Knight never planned to kill the husband and wife. Knight only shot the couple after he heard a police helicopter and suffered a schizophrenic “break,” defense attorneys claimed.
But prosecutors insisted to jurors that Knight never knew cops were covertly tailing him. As proof, they pointed to the detective’s testimony that the helicopter pilot did not arrive on the scene until well after the Ganses were dead.
“There is no question that the evidence about the helicopter was key,” Jordan wrote in a 56-page order.
Jordan also said prosecutors did not show all efforts were made to bring in the case’s original detective as a witness. Greg Smith, the now-retired Miami-Dade detective whose testimony was at the heart of Jordan’s decision, bristles at the ruling. The Florida Supreme Court, he pointed out, had already upheld the 1996 death sentence.
“I find laughable the thought that Thomas Knight killed the Ganses because of the police presence,” Smith said last week. “He wasn’t traveling to South Dade to take them on a picnic. He was going to kill them because they could identify him as their kidnapper.”
Jordan ruled that prosecutors must hold a new penalty phase for Knight, or agree to a life prison term.
Knight’s defense attorneys did not return calls for comment.
Prosecutors are asking a federal appeals court in Atlanta to overturn the judge’s decision. Jordan has since been named to that court, although he would not join any panel deciding on the case.