Friday, January 03, 2014

Thomas Knight may die next week for a crime he committed almost 40 years ago

FBI agents and Metro police take Thomas Knight into
custody on July 17, 1974.
(Miami Herald photo by Tim Chapman)

Miami News,
July 18, 1974.
Next week, and barring yet another delay, the State of Florida may succeed in doing what it's been trying to do for more than 30 years: Kill Thomas Knight.

Sometime around 6 pm next Tuesday, at the state prison in Starke, they'll strap Knight to a gurney and stick a needle in his arm.

If it happens, his death will come almost 40 years after he committed one of the most horrific crimes in South Florida; and almost 25 years after the first death warrant was signed ordering his execution.

But, ironically, Knight isn't being executed on Tuesday for the 1974 double murder that sent him to Death Row, but for another murder he committed while awaiting execution.


July 17, 1974: The toll on State Road 836 is a dime, a South Dixie Highway car dealer advertises "Brand new '74 Plymouth Dusters for $2666, full price," and President Richard Nixon, up to his neck in the Watergate scandal, will resign in disgrace in less than a month.

Also on that Wednesday in July, 23-year-old ex-convict Thomas Knight shows up at the Sydney Bag and Paper Company on NW 159th Street in North Dade, where he'd been hired just 10 days before.

But instead of clocking-in, Knight hides in the bushes and surprises company owner Sydney Gans as he arrives for work in his yellow Mercedes at 8:30 am.

Armed with a .30 cal. carbine, Knight forces Gans to drive back to his home in Bay Harbor Islands where they pick up Gans' wife, Lillian.

Knight then orders Mrs. Gans to drive the trio to a bank on West Flagler Street and Miami Ave.

Arriving at the bank shortly before 10 am, Knight orders Gans to go inside and withdraw $50,000.

Once inside the bank, Gans tells the manager that he and his wife have been kidnapped. The bank manager, Daniel Gill, alerts police and FBI agents, who then set up a command post inside the bank.

Meanwhile, Knight has Mrs. Gans drive the Mercedes in circles in downtown Miami as they wait for Gans to emerge from the bank.

At about 11:10 am, Gans leaves the bank with a bag containing $50,000.

Gans then meets up with his wife and Knight who are waiting in the car a few blocks from the bank.

From there, Gans' Mercedes heads west, and then south on the Palmetto Expressway, and then west again, with police and FBI agents following "unobtrusively."

The Mercedes comes to a stop in a remote area near SW 132nd Street and 117th Ave. But, by now, FBI agents have lost track of the car.

From a Feb. 2, 2013 Miami Herald story by David Ovalle:
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.

During a magistrate's hearing the day after his crime and capture, the Miami News reported that Knight "sat sullenly in a wheelchair, [...] refusing to speak."

Following the hearing, Knight was sent back to jail to await trial.

But he didn't stay locked-up for long.

A little more than two months after his capture, Knight, and 10 other jail inmates managed to break out of jail.

Sept. 20, 1974. 

All ten of Knight's fellow escapees were eventually caught.

But Knight managed to elude capture until the early morning hours of Dec. 31 when cops and FBI agents caught up with him in New Smyrna Beach.

While on the lam, Knight added to his body count by killing a liquor store clerk in Cordele, Georgia.

Miami News, Dec. 31, 1974.
(Click image to enlarge.)

After his capture, Knight was moved to the Orange County Jail in Orlando. Jailers locked him in a cell with 16 other inmates.

That is, until Miami News reporter Nicholas Lackeos showed up and told Knight's jailers that their prisoner had managed to break out of a jail cell in Miami...just like the one they were holding him in now.

Miami News, Jan. 1, 1975.
(Click image to enlarge.)

In April, 1975, Knight went on trial for the Gans murders and was found guilty. He was sentenced to death on April 21, 1975.

Knight was sent to Florida's Death Row.

Florida Dept. of
Corrections photo.
On Oct. 12, 1980, angry because he was denied a visit with his mother, Knight retaliated by stabbing a guard to death with a sharpened spoon.

In Jan., 1981, then Governor Bob Graham signed a death warrant for Knight for the Gans murders.

His execution date was set for March 3.

In 1982, Miami Herald reporter John Dorschner recounted what happened when prison superintendent Richard Dugger told Knight the governor had signed his death warrant.

"How can you execute me when I haven't even had my trial yet about killing the guard?" Knight asked Dugger.

Miami News, Jan. 29, 1981. 

In 1983, a judge once again sentenced Knight to death, this time for the murder of the prison guard.

But over the years Knight has languished on Death Row.

Last October, after Gov. Rick Scott signed a death warrant for Knight for the 1980 murder of the prison guard, the Herald's David Ovalle wrote:
His convictions have been bogged down in the legal system.

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. He was again sentenced to death in 1996.

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 1996 sentencing.

But the U.S. 11th District Court of Appeals last month disagreed and restored the death sentence.

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

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