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Thursday, December 8, 2016

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.

For obvious reasons, defense lawyers in death cases strategize to stall, stall and then stall some more. Their job is to keep their clients alive as long as possible.

Florida fought 10 years to execute the notorious Ted Bundy, at a cost to taxpayers of about $5 million. There’s no calculation as to how much was spent litigating the case of Thomas Knight, who received his first death sentence in 1976, but you can be certain it was a fortune.

Set aside for a moment the moral and religious objections to capital punishment, and the questions about its disproportionate application to minorities. Consider the statute strictly as an expensive, endless drain of legal resources.

Since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976, Florida has averaged slightly more than two executions a year while adding about 12 new residents annually to Death Row. You can do the dismal math in your head.

Today 396 men and five women live on Florida’s Death Row, and most (if not all) have attorneys working on appeals. The pace could never be described as swift.

Knight was no anomaly; many capital cases have been slogging along since the mid-1970s.