The Norman Transcript

Columns

January 14, 2014

Death penalty malfunctioning

NORMAN — The execution of Thomas Knight last week is a textbook case for why Florida’s dysfunctional death penalty should be scrapped.

Here was a man whose guilt was never in doubt, whose crimes were cold-blooded, whose attitude remained remorseless and often defiant — yet the system took nearly 40 years to close the book.

In South Florida, Knight will be remembered for abducting and killing a Bay Harbor Islands couple, Sydney and Lillian Gans, in 1974. After a frantic manhunt he was found hiding in the mud with the rifle used in the crime, and $50,000 cash that he’d forced Gans to withdraw from a bank.

Ironically, Knight wasn’t executed for those murders. In 1980 he fatally stabbed prison guard Richard Burke with a sharpened spoon, and it was that homicide that finally delivered him to the death chamber for a lethal injection.

His case had dragged on so long that last year a federal appeals court lamented: “To learn about the gridlock and inefficiency of death penalty litigation, look no further than this appeal.”

The daughter of Sydney and Lillian Gans didn’t attend Knight’s execution because of poor health. At 73, she is now older than her parents were when they were slain.

For decades, the dogged maneuvering and serial delays in capital cases have frustrated prosecutors and police, and brought more misery to the victims’ relatives. There is no workable solution except to repeal the death penalty and replace it with mandatory life sentences.

Because appealing a capital case involves both state and federal courts, it can’t simply be expedited by legislation. And because people do get wrongly convicted — as organizations such as the Innocence Project have demonstrated — judges must be cautious and thorough.

Convicted of a rape and murder in 1986, Florida Death Row inmate Frankie Lee Smith was exonerated by DNA evidence in December 2000. It was too late. Smith had died of cancer 11 months earlier in prison.

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