Criminal courts

Court restores death sentence in 1974 South Dade murder case

 

dovalle@MiamiHerald.com

One of the longest-serving inmates on Florida’s Death Row is again facing execution for the 1974 murders of a Bay Harbor Islands businessman and his wife.

A federal appeals court on Monday reversed a lower-court judge’s decision to toss out Thomas Knight’s death sentence for the murders of Sydney and Lillian Gans.

Only two inmates have been on Death Row longer than Knight, 62, who is also facing execution for a third murder: the fatal 1980 stabbing of corrections officer Richard Burke.

Monday’s opinion took a swipe at the court battles still churning nearly four decades after the murder.

“To learn about the gridlock and inefficiency of death penalty litigation, look no further than this appeal,” the opinion said.

Gans, a successful paper-bag company owner, had hired Knight, a parolee, in 1974. Ten days later, Knight kidnapped him and Lillian at rifle-point, forcing Gans to go to a downtown Miami bank to withdraw $50,000.

Knight held Lillian Gans 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. A slew of FBI agents and cops covertly tailed the car as Knight ordered Gans to drive to West Miami-Dade.

In a blunder that still riles the Gans relatives today, agents lost track of the car. In a secluded wooded area at Southwest 132nd Street and 117th Avenue, Knight shot each of the Gans with a bullet to the neck.

Officers found Knight hours later, buried in the mud, the money and the rifle underneath his body.

In 1987, a federal appeals court threw out the Gans death sentence, ruling that 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 and yelling “Allahu Akbar!” — “God is great” in Arabic.

Jurors, in a 9-3 vote, recommended the death penalty, once again, for the Gans murders. Circuit Judge Rodolfo Sorondo Jr. sentenced him to death.

But then late last year, U.S. District Judge Adalberto Jordan ruled Knight’s constitutional right to confront and cross-examine witnesses had been violated at the sentencing.

The reason: Miami-Dade Detective Greg Smith recounted the words of a police helicopter pilot who never testified in previous court hearings.

The issue was key for defense lawyers, who 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 insisted.

Prosecutors told jurors that Knight never knew cops were covertly tailing him. As proof, they pointed to Smith’s testimony that the helicopter pilot did not arrive on the scene until well after the Ganses were dead.

The federal appeals court on Monday agreed with prosecutors, saying Knight got to cross-examine Smith at the sentencing, and that the “hearsay” evidence was admissable at that hearing.

“When the opinion came out then, it was laughable. Thank God the appellate courts saw through it,” Smith said Monday. “It’s been 40 years that the poor Gans family has been tortured with this case. Enough already.”

Monday’s decision was 2-1 in favor of prosecutors. The dissenter: U.S. Circuit Judge Charles Wilson.

Judge Jordan is now a member of the federal 11th Circuit Court of Appeals. He did not participate in the Knight appeal.

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