Askari Abdullah Muhammad, 62, an inmate with a long history of mental illness, was executed at Florida’s Starke prison Tuesday evening at 6:45 p.m. Muhammad, formerly known as Thomas Knight, is the first inmate executed in Florida this year, and the 13th executed on Gov. Rick Scott’s watch, starting with the execution of Manuel Valle in September 2011. Muhammad was on death row for four decades. He is the 82nd inmate executed in Florida since the state re-instituted the death penalty in 1973.
Muhammad was sentenced to death in 1975 for the murder in July 1974 of Sydney and Lillian Gans near Miami. That death sentence was overturned in 1988, but he was again sentenced to death in 1996. Last February, a federal judge threw out that death sentence. But in the meantime, Muhammad had been convicted of another murder after he killed prison guard James Burke in 1980.
In 1974, Sydney Gans was the 64-year-old owner of a paper bag company and the Miami Beach Flamingos, a minor league baseball team. Gans gave paroled individuals work, to give them a second chance. Muhammad was one of those employees. He’d been working for Gans 10 days when he kidnapped him at gunpoint, then kidnapped his wife Lillian, taking both to a bank in Miami and forcing Sydney to withdraw $50,000 while Muhammad held a .30-caliber carbine against Lillian in the car. Sydney alerted authorities, however, before returning to the car. Police trailed the car from a distance. Muhammad was unaware.
But then police lost track of the car. And Muhammad shot the couple in a wooded area at Southwest 132nd Street and 117th Avenue. Muhammad was soon found and arrested. He escaped and was at large for 101 days until he was arrested again in New Smyrna Beach.
When the prison denied him the right to see his mother in 1980, Muhammad stabbed Burke to death with a sharpened spoon. By then his execution for the Gans murders had been scheduled for March 3, 1981, on a death warrant signed by Gov. Bob Graham. Knight’s reaction, as reported by the Miami Herald: “How can you execute me when I haven’t even had my trial yet about killing the guard?” His execution was stayed. He was tried. Found guilty. Sentenced to death on the Burke murder.
A series of missteps and legal reversals, followed, as chronicled by Amnesty International: In 1988, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit overturned the 1975 death sentence because the trial court had restricted consideration of mitigation evidence. It ordered the state “within a reasonable time” to either hold a resentencing or impose a sentence of less than death. A resentencing was not held for eight years, until early 1996, when Muhammad was again condemned to death for the Gans murders.
In 2012, a federal district court ordered the state to hold a new sentencing within a year or commute the death sentence to life, on the grounds that Muhammad’s right to confront a witness at his resentencing had been violated when the state presented that witness’s evidence in the form of hearsay. In September 2013, the 11th Circuit overturned this ruling, two votes to one. Gov. Rick Scott signed a death warrant for Muhammad on Oct. 21, for the James Burke murder case. The execution was set for Dec. 3. On Nov. 18, the Florida Supreme Court issued a stay of execution and remanded the case to the trial-level court for an evidentiary hearing on Florida’s revised execution protocol issued in September 2013. The stay was lifted on Dec. 19.
Just one inmate has been on death row longer than Muhammad: Douglas Meeks, sentenced on march 12, 1975. There are currently 401 individuals on Florida’s death row, all but five of them men.
In 2009, the then most senior justice on the US Supreme Court, Justice John Paul Stevens, wrote that “our experience during the past three decades has demonstrated that delays in state-sponsored killings are inescapable and that executing defendant after such delays is unacceptably cruel.”
Ten years earlier, in the Muhammad case and one from Nebraska, Justice Stephen Breyer had dissented against the Court’s refusal to consider the constitutionality of holding a prisoner for so long on death row. The delays in Muhammad’s case, Breyer wrote, had resulted “in large part from the States’ failure to apply constitutionally sufficient procedures at the time of initial sentencing.” In that dissent, Breyer wrote: “It is difficult to deny the suffering inherent in a prolonged wait for execution… And death row conditions of special isolation may well aggravate that suffering.”
After the stabbing of Officer Burke, Amnesty International notes, Muhammad was placed in solitary confinement in the particularly harsh conditions of Q Wing in Florida’s Starke prison. A forensic psychologist later testified in the case about the “tomb-like” conditions of Q Wing, in which Muhammad was held for nine years until 1989.
Seven of the 35 executions in 2013 in the United States were carried out in Florida, the most executions in a single year in Florida since 1984.