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.”
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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.