Sigfredo Garcia rubs the sleep out of his eyes as he prepares to hear the closing arguments for his trial on charges of killing FSU law professor Daniel Markel on Thursday. The case went to the jury later in the day.
The fate of the alleged hitman and his girlfriend accused in the murder of Florida State University law professor Daniel Markel went to the jury Thursday, concluding what even the prosecutor said is an incomplete chapter in one of the capital city’s most sensational crimes.
“What enemy or enemies had Mr. Markel made that set into motion such a brutal act?” asked Georgia Cappleman, lead prosecutor in the case, referring to the legal scholar who was shot twice in the head on July 18, 2014, as he pulled into the driveway of his Tallahassee home.
“The answer: his own family.”
Prosecutors told jurors that the South Florida family of Markel’s former wife, Wendi Adelson, financed the murder-for-hire hit on Markel with a promise of $100,000 in cash and gifts. The money was to be divided three ways, the state alleges, between Sigfredo Garcia, the alleged triggerman; Katherine Magbanua, his long-time girlfriend; and Garcia’s childhood friend Luis Rivera, the head of North Miami’s Latin Kings gang.
But in spite of the prosecution’s focus on Markel’s former in-laws, no one from the Adelson family has been arrested. In an unusual end to the three-week trial, Cappleman suggested that she hopes there is more to come.
“Yes, I do hope that every single person who has any culpability in the death of Dan Markel will be held accountable,’’ she told jurors. But first she urged them to focus on convicting Garcia and Magbanua.
Magbanua dated Charlie Adelson, the former brother-in-law of the victim, and is believed by prosecutors to be the link between the hit man and the family. She and Garcia, the father of her two children, have been charged with first degree murder. Rivera, the state’s star witness, confessed to being involved in the murder and testified in exchange for a reduced sentence in which he will serve 19 years in jail.
The 12-member jury, comprised of 10 women, three of them black, and two men, both of whom are white, was sequestered late Thursday afternoon to begin deliberations. The trial lasted nearly three weeks and culminated five years of national media attention that included features on television true-crime shows and the podcast, Over My Dead Body.
Markel, an expert in criminal defense law, was divorced from Wendi Adelson in 2013 after six years of marriage and went through a bitter custody fight. When she tried to relocate to Miami Beach with her two young sons, Markel got a court order to block it.
Cappleman spent more than 20 minutes of her lengthy closing argument focused on the role of the Adelson family, reading emails from Donna Adelson, the mother of Wendi and Charles.
“People other than the two folks who are on trial today…also bear responsibility,’’ Cappleman told the jury, pointing to a chart with the faces of Markel, Wendi, Charles and Harvey Adelson as well as the defendants.
The suggested murder motive: to end the court order and emotional strain that had barred Wendi Adelson from relocating her children to South Florida.
“This was done out of necessity,’’ she said. “It’s not a desperation thing.”
For months, Donna Adelson urged her daughter to pressure Markel into allowing them to relocate the children, Cappleman said. The grandmother prepared an elaborate “plan of action” that included possibly bribing him with a $1 million payment, to pressure Markel into allowing them to relocate the children.
Markel responded with a court motion in March of 2014, alleging that Donna Adelson was disparaging him in front of the children, calling him “stupid” and telling them they were “trying to take her sunshines away.”
But the issue never made it to a court hearing, Cappleman said, because “Dan Markel was murdered and, guess what? Relocation was never a problem. Within 48 hours [of his death] Wendi Adelson had moved to South Florida, never to return to Tallahassee.”
The murder sent shock waves through Tallahassee, a mid-sized North Florida town with an out-sized amount of gun violence. But it also perplexed law enforcement, who spent months scouring cell tower data and publicly available video for clues.
Police identified a light-green 2008 Toyoto Pruis that matched the description of the one spotted by Markel’s neighbor on the morning of the murder, then traced the Pruis to a rental agency in Miami. Police found that Rivera had rented the car and, using cell tower records, found that he and Garcia had likely trailed Markel on the morning of his murder.
When police were able to link Garcia’s phone with Magbanua and Charlie Adelson, they had the seeds of the conspiracy, Cappleman said.
“It appears these people are isolated from one another and the middle is Katherine Magnabua,’’ she explained.
But Magbanua and Garcia’s attorneys said the state’s case is an intentionally incomplete view of the facts, leaving gaps in the evidence when it doesn’t fall neatly into their claims.
“They are trying to argue the evidence in a way that fits their theory,’’ said Chris DeCoste, Magbanua’s attorney. “She was in no way involved with this murder. She has been in custody for three years. It’s time for her to go home.”
The defense attorneys also urged jurors to reject the testimony of Rivera, serving a 12-year sentence on racketeering charges in a federal prison, suggesting he was the real shooter.
Rivera is “a bad guy. The worst of the worst,’’ said Garcia’s attorney Saam Zangeneh. “Do you think he would have gotten the deal that he got if he admitted to being the shooter?”
He disputed the proscecution’s theory that Magbanua arranged the murder by telling Garcia and Rivera they were doing it to help some woman get her children back. Garcia, who is the father of Magbanua’s two children, was bitterly jealous of her dating Charlie Adelson, he said.
“If she says I’ve got a job for you. It’s 100-grand. Don’t you think his answer is going to be: who’s paying me?” Zangeneh asked. The state offered no answers, he said. “They are painting a picture with missing pieces.”
In an unusual move, Magbanua took the stand Wednesday and testified that, while she believed Charlie Adelson was guilty of arranging Markel’s murder, she knew nothing about it.
Her attorney, Chris DeCoste, compared Magbanua’s unpolished testimony to that of Wendi Adelson “a trained attorney” who “laughed” when asked if she would be arrested. Wendi Adelson, who has since moved back to South Florida, testified in the first week of the trial that she had no knowledge of who had plotted her husband’s murder, and was given partial immunity to take the witness stand.
“There is only one reason why a single mother of two young children, would sit in customer for three long years, in confinement, risking it all,’’ DeCoste said. “She’s innocent.”
He picked apart the prosecution’s claim that after the murder, Magbanua’s bank account saw a sharp increase in cash deposits. He said the state failed to look at the months before the murder, to draw a fair comparison. He asked: “If you’re receiving money from a murder, who in their right mind would deposit it?”
DeCoste said the state’s attempt to make Magbanua the catalyst to the murder conspiracy is a desperate attempt to find a link to the Adelsons. And DeCoste and Zangeneh both chided prosecutors for focusing the Adelson family’s complicity while producing no arrests.
Cappleman told jurors she was “concerned” they would suggest there was enough reasonable doubt not to convict the 34-year-old mother of two and urged them to reject those doubts.
“Just because Katherine Magbanua did not come to Tallahassee or pull the trigger herself, does not mean she is not just as guilty,’’ she said. “She is the conduit between Dan Markel and the man who put a bullet in his head. Without her, we are not here today. Katherine Magbanua is just as guilty as Sigfredo Garcia.”
A conviction could also give Cappleman the leverage she needs to open a new chapter in the case. If the jury finds Garcia and Magbanua guilty, prosecutors could ask them to provide evidence against members of the Adelson family, or face life in prison — or in Garcia’s case, death.
Cappleman said in an interview she wouldn’t comment on why the state has not arrested anyone from the Adelson family. But, she added, “there is no statute of limitations for murder.”
Mary Ellen Klas can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org at on Twitter @MaryEllenKlas