In a compelling new interview conducted by attorney and filmmaker Ted Corless, the late Florida Supreme Court Chief Justice Gerald Kogan lists the numerous reasons why he believed Florida’s death penalty should be abolished.
“I have been a member of the Florida Bar for 63 years,” Kogan said in the interview recorded shortly before his death. “I have handled capital cases for most of that period of time. I became the chief prosecutor in Miami Dade County. And what happened was, at the beginning I would tell all of the people who worked under me, you’ve got to go ahead and ask the jury to enter the death penalty in this particular case. And then I began as the years went by, I began saying, wait a minute, that’s a bad position for me to take. And I believe that the death penalty should absolutely not be a punishment delivered by the State of Florida, or for that matter, neither any place in the United States or the world.”
The video, released today on the Corless Barfeld Trial Group YouTube channel, is the first in a series of several videos featuring Floridians with direct, first person experience with the death penalty. The release is timed with the anniversary of the exoneration of the first death row survivor in the modern era in the country and in Florida. The exoneration was the first of 30 people from Florida, a number that is likely to grow. (The state has executed 99 Floridians since 1979. In essence one death row inmate has been exonerated for every three executions.)
In a particularly compelling part of the interview, Justice Kogan shares that he is convinced that innocent people have been executed in Florida. These cases haunted Kogan and, in the video, he speaks movingly of the gravity of being “the last word” before an execution.
“We are executing people who probably are innocent,” he says in the video.
“Justice Kogan was right about the risk of executing an innocent person,” said Mark Elliott, executive director of Floridians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty. “Our state has had 30 death row exonerations – the highest in the nation. That’s one exoneration for every three executions. That should shock the conscience of every Floridian.”
As a former prosecutor, Justice Kogan wasn’t always against the death penalty. Over the course of his career, he developed grave concerns about it. Critically, during his time on the Court, Justice Kogan learned that half of his and his colleagues’ hours of work would be devoted to one class of cases: people who had been condemned to death. The experience shaped his view that the death penalty is inherently unfair and would always carry the risk of executing an innocent person.
Gov. Bob Martinez appointed Kogan to the Supreme Court in January 1987. He served until 1998 and was Chief Justice starting in 1996.
Kogan died on March 4. The video series is a posthumous tribute to a man who was clearly passionate about justice. Justice Kogan believed that if Floridians were aware of this reality, they would reject the death penalty.
“When we find out that we have killed an innocent person,” Kogan says in the video, “you don’t go to the cemetery and open up the coffin and say, sorry fellow, we made a mistake, or young lady, older lady–sorry, we made a mistake. But don’t worry, your family will be able to collect money from the state of Florida. We cannot bring back to life people that we made mistakes about. And we just have to do something.”
“This video is really groundbreaking,” said Elliott. “Justice Kogan knew the justice system intimately. He was involved in more than a thousand death penalty cases. If a conservative former prosecutor that led Florida’s highest court thinks we should end the death penalty, then it’s something our current leaders should seriously consider.”