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Judge throws out death sentence in 1974 Miami-Dade murders

As agents closed in on him in the woods of Southwest Miami-Dade, kidnapper Thomas Knight shot his two hostages execution-style, then buried himself in the mud atop $50,000 in stolen cash.

The savage 1974 murders of Bay Harbor Islands businessman Sydney Gans and his wife Lillian landed Knight on Death Row — but the legal case is still churning after nearly four decades.

The latest chapter: a Miami federal judge late last year tossed out Knight’s death sentence for the Gans murders. Prosecutors are now appealing the ruling.

Knight, 61, nevertheless remains on Death Row for a third murder: the fatal 1980 stabbing of corrections officer Richard Burke.

“It’s gotten to the point where it’s a slap in face,” said Judd Shapiro, 48, the Ganses’ grandson.

Said the Ganses’ daughter, Harriet Shapiro, now 72: “Even though I have no hatred in my heart and I don’t live with anger, I would be very happy to see him dead and stand there when they kill him.”

Only two prisoners have been on Florida’s Death Row longer than Knight. His murder of the Ganses, while unfamiliar to newer generations of South Floridians, was a major story in July 1974.

Sydney Gans, 64, owned a successful paper bag company and a minor league baseball team, the Miami Beach Flamingos. He taught his grandson to play baseball and served as a leader at his synagogue.

Gans also employed parolees looking for a second chance. Knight was one of them. He had worked for the paper company for 10 days when he kidnapped Sydney Gans at rifle point.

Knight forced him to drive to the Gans’ home, where he kidnapped Lillian Gans. The three drove to downtown Miami, where Knight forced Sydney Gans to enter a bank and withdraw $50,000.

Knight — armed with a semi-automatic .30-caliber carbine — 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 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. He disappeared 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.

Not long after his arrest, Knight and a group of inmates escaped the Dade County Jail. He remained a fugitive for 101 days until agents burst in on him holed up in a New Smyrna Beach shack.

Judd Shapiro — 9 when his grandparents were killed — remembers that while Knight was on the lam, a teacher was assigned to guard him while at school.

“Every child at some point comes to the realization that the world is not necessarily a safe place, and for me it came at a young age and in an extreme fashion,” said Judd, now an English teacher.

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.

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.