Criminal justice

Thomas Knight, who killed Miami couple and a prison guard, executed


Knight’s dark history

July 17, 1974 – Thomas Knight kidnaps and murders Sydney and Lillian Gans of Bay Harbor Islands. He is immediately arrested.

September 1974 – Knight and 10 other inmates escape from Dade County jail. He is placed on the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted List.

October 1974 – Police believe Knight and another man fatally shoot a liquor store clerk during a robbery for $641 in Crisp County, GA. He is not charged.

December 1974 – FBI agents capture Knight in New Smyrna Beach. He is found with a shotgun and two pistols, all stolen.

April 1976 – A Miami-Dade jury convicts Knight of murdering the couple. He is sentenced to death.

October 1980 – Using a sharpened spoon, Knight stabs and kills corrections Officer Richard Burke at the Florida State Prison in Starke.

March 1981 – Knight is scheduled to be executed after Gov. Lawton Chiles signs his death warrant. A federal judge stays his execution pending more appeals.

January 1983 – Knight is convicted and sentenced to death for the Burke murder.

January 1996 – A federal appeals court overturns his death sentence in the Gans case, ordering a new penalty phase trial.

February 1996 – After a new sentencing phase, Knight is again sentenced to death. He is repeatedly banned from the courtroom because of his disruptive behavior.

March 2006 – With state courts repeatedly affirming his conviction and sentence, Knight’s lawyers appeal to a Miami federal judge.

November 2012 – Six years after the appeal was first filed, Miami U.S. Judge Adalberto Jordan reverses Knight’s death sentence. He orders a new sentencing hearing or life sentences for the convict.

September 2013 – A federal appeals court reverses Judge Jordan, reinstating the death penalty for Knight. “To learn about the gridlock and inefficiency of death penalty litigation, look no further than this appeal,” the court writes.

October 2013 – Gov. Rick Scott signs death warrant for Knight, not for the Miami-Dade murders but for the slaying of Burke. The execution is scheduled for Dec. 3.

November 2013 – The Florida Supreme Court delays the execution, ordering a Bradford judge to hold a hearing to consider whether a new drug used in the lethal injection procedure constitutes cruel and unusual punishment.

December 2013 – The state’s high court lifts the stay of execution after ruling Knight has failed to prove the drug is unsafe. Gov. Rick Scott re-schedules the execution for Jan. 7.

Over a staggering four decades in Florida’s criminal justice system, Thomas Knight repeatedly staved off execution for the brutal 1974 murders of a Bay Harbor Islands couple — breaking out of jail, murdering a prison guard and disrupting court hearings with angry outbursts.

But when all the appeals had finally run out Tuesday evening, Knight exited the world without an apology to the families of his victims or any statement at all.

“No,” is all Knight muttered when a corrections official asked if he had any last words.

“He absolutely went out like a lamb, nothing like how he was in the courtroom,” said retired Miami-Dade homicide detective Greg Smith, who attended the execution with Miami-Dade prosecutor Gail Levine. “In the end, today was some measure of justice for the families.”

At 6:31 p.m. Tuesday at the Florida State Prison, his home for most of the past 40 years, Knight was injected with a lethal cocktail of drugs. The execution warrant was technically issued for the fatal stabbing of corrections officer Richard Burke in 1980. But he also had been sentenced to death for the brutal slayings of Sydney and Lillian Gans, who he had kidnapped and shot to death in the woods of South Miami-Dade six years earlier .

Knight’s blinking eyes snapped shut. Covered in a sheet, his hands wrapped in gauze, his arms pierced by IV’s, Knight seemed to drift into slumber. His breathing slowed. A prison official tapped his eyelids and slightly shook his shoulders.

At 6:45 p.m., a doctor pronounced the triple murderer — who had spent more time on death row than all but two other killers — dead.

Behind a glass pane, Burke’s daughters, who were raised near this same prison, watched in tears. So did two former co-workers of the slain officer.

“It’s hard to say this is where my dad took his last breath,” Carolyn Burke Thompson, 47, of Tennessee, told reporters afterward. “But I’m at peace now.”

Said Burke’s other daughter, Margaret Dela Vega: “My daddy can finally rest in peace.”

The execution caps Knight’s 40-year slog through the criminal justice system, which led one federal court to blast the “gridlock and inefficiency of death penalty litigation.”

Even on Tuesday, the possibility of another delay hung over the final minutes – the execution was pushed back about a half-an-hour as the U.S. Supreme Court mulled, but denied, a final attempt at a stay.

“It doesn’t bring my grandparents back … but it’s over. At least, in some sense, it allows us for move forward,” said Judd Shapiro, the grandson of the Ganses. Shapiro and his mother declined to attend an execution they believed would be too draining emotionally.

“I’d like to hope, in some fashion, this helps other people, that they realize that sooner or later the right thing does happen,’’ he said. “But it shouldn’t take this long. It shouldn’t take 40 years.”

At rifle-point, Knight kidnapped Sydney Gans, a prominent businessman, and his wife in July 1974, forcing them to withdraw $50,000 from a downtown Miami bank. Gans was able to alert police, who covertly tailed their car as Knight forced them to drive south.

But in a remote wooded area, Knight shot each of his hostages with a bullet to the neck before he was captured. He was found hiding in the woods, caked in mud, with the murder weapon and money.

While awaiting trial, Knight escaped from the Dade County jail. Police say he killed a shopkeeper in Georgia before his re-capture 101 days later.

Knight was convicted of the Ganses’ murders in 1975 and sent to Death Row.

It was there that Knight fatally stabbed Burke in the chest. He was later convicted and sent back to Death Row for the crime.

Years of appeals followed and his death sentence in the Gans case was reversed in 1986. One decade later, Knight was again sentenced to death for the Miami-Dade case.

A federal judge again reversed his death sentence in the Gans case, only to have it reinstated by a federal appeals court in September.

A December execution was again delayed by a month after Knight alleged that a new drug used in the lethal injection process amounted to cruel and unusual punishment. The state’s high court did not agree.

On Tuesday, the beard Knight grew for the 1996 re-sentencing was gone. So were his outbursts. His final meal, unlike his life, was mostly sweet: portions of sweet potato pie, coconut cake, banana nut bread, vanilla ice cream, strawberry-and-butter pecan ice cream and Fritos corn chips — all washed down by a quarter of a bottle of Sprite.

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