Fla. executes man who killed guard, couple

By Tamara Lush

Associated Press

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STARKE, Fla. — A Florida inmate was executed Tuesday for fatally stabbing a prison guard with a sharpened spoon while on death row for abducting and killing a Miami couple.

Askari Abdullah Muhammad, previously known as Thomas Knight, was pronounced dead at 6:45 p.m. Tuesday after a lethal injection at Florida State Prison, the governor’s office said. The execution took place in the same prison where Muhammad killed corrections officer Richard Burke in 1980.

“This is where my dad took his last breath,” said the slain guard’s daughter, 47-year-old Carolyn Burke Thompson. She was among several family members who witnessed the execution and could be seen crying in the front row as it was carried out.

“The system finally has worked. I am at peace knowing I don’t have to wait any longer. I miss my dad a lot,” she said.

Muhammad, 62, was initially condemned to die for the 1974 abduction and killings of Sydney and Lillian Gans of Miami. Tuesday’s execution was specifically for Burke’s killing.

Muhammad was visited by his four sisters Monday and earlier Tuesday by a friend. He declined to make any statement before the sentence was carried out. A small group opposed to the death penalty protested outside the prison.

His execution was delayed for so long by numerous appeals and rulings, including a 1987 federal appeals court tossing out his original death sentence because he hadn’t been allowed to put character and background witnesses on the stand during the penalty phase.

The U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear his final appeals, but Justice Stephen Breyer said in a dissent he would have granted a stay to hear Muhammad’s claims that it may be unconstitutional to execute an inmate after such a long time on death row.

Court documents show that Muhammad fatally stabbed Burke as he was being escorted to the prison shower. The inmate had become upset, the documents say, because he was told he couldn’t see a visitor unless he shaved his full beard. The documents added he had been overheard by guards to remark that “it looks like I’ll have to start sticking people.”

In the earlier slayings, Muhammad had worked for Gans at a paper bag company before abducting him in the business parking lot with a rifle. He ordered Gans to drive home, pick up his wife and then head to a bank to withdraw $50,000.

Inside the bank, Gans asked a manager to alert authorities. Both the FBI and police were able to follow the car for a while, including use of aircraft, but lost track of it for a short time in a rural area of Miami-Dade County. Trial testimony showed that’s when Muhammad shot the couple and tried to hide by burying himself, the rifle and the money in mud and weeds.

Muhammad was found soon after and arrested. While awaiting trial, he and 10 other inmates escaped from jail, leading to a nationwide manhunt including a top 10 fugitives listing by the FBI.

Authorities say Muhammad was involved after his escape in the fatal October 1974 shooting of a liquor store clerk during an armed robbery in Cordele, Ga., that wounded a second clerk. He was never tried in that case.

The FBI finally arrested Muhammad on New Year’s Eve in 1974 in Florida.

Muhammad converted to Islam in prison, changing his name from Knight. During his 1996 resentencing, he cursed at the judge and lawyers and yelled “Allahu Akbar!” — “God is great” in Arabic.