Miami triple killer indulges sweet tooth before execution

dovalle@Mmiamiherald.comJanuary 7, 2014 

Thomas Knight, a triple murderer who spent nearly four decades on Death Row, was executed Tuesday night.

STARKE — Miami triple murderer Thomas Knight was executed Tuesday evening, offering no apology to his victims’ families or last words at all. He was pronounced dead at 6:45 p.m.

Knight loaded up on sweets and visited with a friend earlier in the day and his demeanor before the execution was calm, a Florida corrections spokeswoman said Tuesday afternoon.

Knight ate 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.

The condemned inmate — who has been awaiting execution for nearly four decades — visited with an unidentified friend Tuesday, one day after meeting with four of his sisters.

Knight was scheduled to be executed at 6 p.m. for the 1980 stabbing of Richard Burke, a corrections officer at Florida State Prison, where the inmate is to be put to death by lethal injection.

The 62-year-old left behind a legacy of bloodshed, including the crime that landed him on Florida’s Death Row to begin with: the 1974 kidnapping and murders of a Bay Harbor Islands couple, Sydney and Lillian Gans.

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

Knight, then a parolee, was an employee of Sydney Gans, a prominent paper bag company owner, when he kidnapped the businessman in July 1974.

The gunman Knight forced Gans to drive to his Bay Harbor Islands home, where Lillian Gans was also abducted. Afterward, Knight forced Sydney Gans — as his wife was held at rifle-point inside the car — to go into a Downtown Miami bank and withdraw $50,000. Gans alerted authorities before returning to the car because he feared for his wife’s safety.

FBI agents and police officer covertly followed the car as it sped toward South Miami-Dade. But authorities lost track of the car — a blunder that has long angered the Gans surviving relatives.

In a remote wooded area, Knight shot each of his hostages with a bullet to the neck. After hours of searching, officers found Knight hiding in the mud. While awaiting trial, Knight and 10 other inmates escaped from the Dade County jail. He was suspected of killing a clerk at a Georgia liquor store while on the lam, though he was never charged.

After 101 days as a fugitive, the FBI captured Knight in New Smyrna Beach.

Unlike today, death penalty cases moved briskly in the 1970s. Within one year of the Gans murders, Knight was convicted and sent to Death Row. It was there that Knight, upset he was not allowed to visit with his mother at the prison, fatally stabbed Burke in the chest. He was later convicted and sent back to Death Row to also face execution for the slaying of the prison officer.

Knight escaped a March 1981 execution date after a federal judge granted a stay. In the years that followed, Knight’s appeals moved glacially through the system.

A federal court reversed the death sentence in 1986, saying he should have been allowed to present background and character witnesses during a penalty phase trial.

One decade later, Knight was again sentenced to death — after a trial marked by his disruptive behavior and cursing at the judge. That sentence sparked a whole new slew of appeals. But in September, a federal appeals court restored the death sentence. One month later, Gov. Rick Scott signed Knight’s death warrant for the Burke murder.

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