December 9, 2022

politics of law

Politics and Law

Day 1 trial tick-tock of opening arguments, first witnesses

11 min read

GAVEL-TO-GAVEL COVERAGE: The Tallahassee Democrat will livestream each day of the trial of Katherine Magbanua from the courthouse in Tallahassee. Watch on Tallahassee.com and on the Tallahassee Democrat’s Facebook page. For best viewing experience: Download the Tallahassee Democrat app to watch and receive text alerts on when to watch – from opening arguments to the verdict. If you are having trouble seeing the livestream, click here.

Katherine Magbanua faces a jury again in the murder of acclaimed Florida State law professor Dan Markel.

In the retrial that starts today, Magbanua faces charges of first-degree murder, conspiracy to commit murder and solicitation of murder in connection with Markel’s broad-daylight shooting in July 2014.

She is suspected of being the conduit between the hitmen and Markel’s former in-laws who have been implicated as the masterminds and financiers of what investigators say was a murder for hire.

Day 1 recap: Dan Markel murder ‘middleman’? Conflicting portraits of Katherine Magbanua emerge

Charlie Adelson arrested:  Latest twist in the murder-for-hire case of FSU professor Dan Markel

What follows is a regularly updated reporter’s notebook account of the day’s proceedings from Karl Etters, who has covered all the twists in the case for the last seven years.

5 p.m.: Lead investigator details motive, defense grills over co-conspirators

Jurors heard from the lead detective in the case, retired Tallahassee Police Department detective Craig Isom.

Isom detailed the first tidbits of clues surrounding the rented Prius Sigfredo Garcia and Luis Rivera drove to Tallahassee in to kill Markel as well as indicators from Markel’s divorce that others may be involved in his death.

He also delved into the alleged connections that led to the arrest of Katherine Magbanua.

Isom walked jurors through surveillance video of Markel’s last moments as he left Premier Fitness and drove home down Thomasville Road. Lurking behind him was Garcia and Rivera in the Prius, which was captured on the gym’s video as well as on passing city busses.

The videos provided key clues that allowed investigators to find the exact car and narrow down who may have been behind Markel’s murder.

The vehicle had an after-market sideview mirror. It had a missing front tow hook and a SunPass, which was used to pass through a toll booth on I-75 near Naples just after 5:20 p.m. the day Markel was shot.

“We didn’t have anything else to go on,” Isom said. “Just the Prius.”

Investigators were able to track the car back to the rental agency where Rivera had signed his own name and written his phone number on the rental agreement.

Isom also detailed how court filings in Markel’s divorce, as well as statements by his ex-wife, Wendi Adelson, led to suspicions that her family may be involved.

She told Isom her brother, Charlie Adelson, had joked that he looked into hiring a hitman but instead purchased a TV because it was cheaper. He was arrested last month on charges of first-degree murder, conspiracy to commit murder and solicitation of murder in connection with Markel’s death.

Isom said there were court filings which also piqued his interest.

Craig Isom, a retired Tallahassee Police Department violent crimes investigator, is recalled to testify in the trial for the murder of Florida State law professor Dan Markel Tuesday, Oct. 8, 2019.

Craig Isom, a retired Tallahassee Police Department violent crimes investigator, is recalled to testify in the trial for the murder of Florida State law professor Dan Markel Tuesday, Oct. 8, 2019.

Markel and Wendi Adelson argued over a lot during their break up. Everything from jewelry to tennis rackets.

They also argued over the Adelson family’s desire to move their kids to South Florida, a move a judge denied.

Isom said investigators learned Wendi Adelson’s mother, Donna Adelson, then ramped up suggestions about how to coerce Markel into allowing the move, based on emails collected from Wendi Adelson’s computer.

He said Donna Adelson suggested bribing Markel with a $1 million payout or threatening to convert the boys to Catholicism. Markel was devoutly Jewish.

“They thought maybe this would trigger something for him to voluntarily allow the kids to move to South Florida,” Isom said.

Markel filed a motion to ask a judge that Donna Adelson only be allowed supervised visits with his sons.

Katherine Magbanua listens to defense attorney Christopher DeCoste at the start of jury selection on Monday, May 16, 2022 for Magbanua's trial on charges she was involved in the murder of Dan Markel.

Katherine Magbanua listens to defense attorney Christopher DeCoste at the start of jury selection on Monday, May 16, 2022 for Magbanua’s trial on charges she was involved in the murder of Dan Markel.

“Was that motion ever heard by the court,” Assistant State Attorney Georgia Cappleman asked Isom.

“No,” he replied.

“Why not?”

“Because Dan Markel was murdered,” Isom told jurors.

Isom said during is first interview with Rivera, the gang leader volunteered Magbanua’s name as being involved in the plot and was not coerced to do so.

He detailed how although Magbanua began receiving checks from the Adelson’s South Florida dentistry practice just months after the murder, investigators were unable to establish her job title, find an employment record or application or tax documents related to the job.

Isom however contradicted himself during questioning by Magbanua’s attorneys Chris DeCoste.

DeCoste grilled the retired investigator about the interviews with Rivera and Magbanua’s employment with Adelson as an office assistant responsible for contacting patients.

DeCoste reviewed multiple texts in which he said it appeared Magbanua communicated with Charlie Adelson about scheduling, remotely communicating patients and being excited to be hired.

“Can you tell them (jurors) conclusively that she did not work for Charlie Adelson, legitimately receiving the money?” DeCoste asked.

“No,” Isom replied.

Isom said when Rivera was interviewed in the months before Magbanua’s arrest, warrants had been provided to his attorneys as part of the flow of evidence. Within those affidavits, there was information about the case, including the theory that Magbanua was involved.

That gave Rivera ample time to craft his story around what investigator’s believed happened, which included implicating his client, DeCoste said.

“It was his word alone that resulted in the arrest of Katherine Maganua,” DeCoste said. “Didn’t you unintentionally give him the script of what to say?”

Isom replied: “If you want to look at it from that hindsight, yes.”

12:40 p.m. State calls Markel’s neighbor, first investigators on scene and medical examiner

Prosecutors called their first witnesses, including the neighbor who found Markel and called 911 and the first investigators on scene.

Markel’s neighbor described hearing a bang while at his Trescott Drive house, which would later turn out to be a gunshot. He then spotted a light-colored Toyota Prius fleeing Markel’s driveway across the street.

The neighbor said he went over to check on Markel and found him bloody and unresponsive before calling 911. He told jurors Markel’s car was still running when he found him in the garage.

It took an ambulance 19 minutes to get to Markel’s home and transport him to the hospital where he later died.

More from 2014: Ambulance arrived at Markel’s home 19 minutes after 911 call

Two now retired Tallahassee Police Department investigators testified that it did not appear that Markel was the victim of a burglary. The doors to his house were still locked when police arrived, they told jurors.

Jurors saw crime scene photos that showed the shattered window of Markel’s car and grisly autopsy photos of Markel.

They revealed that he’d been shot in the head twice at point blank range, once through the window and a second time.

Dr. Anthony J. Clark, an associate medical examiner in Tallahassee, said it appeared Markel had been shot from as close as two feet away.

Jurors will return to court at 1:30 p.m. when testimony will resume. 

Setting up the case: ‘Prosecutorial desperation’ or nefarious nexus? Two takes on Katherine Magbanua’s retrial

Revisiting the 2019 trial: Everything we learned each day in court 

11 a.m: State points to Magbanua as conduit, defense says lack of evidence in opening statements

Prosecutors laid out their case against Katherine Magabanua, alleging she was intimately involved in the murder-for-hire plot that led to the death of Dan Markel.

Assistant State Attorney Sarah Dugan pointed the finger at the 37-year-old during opening statements in which she said Magbanua was the vital link between the men hired to kill the Florida State law professor and his estranged in-laws who wanted him dead over a bitter child custody battle.

“The defendant was the link or the middle man between the people who wanted this murder done and the man who pulled the trigger,” Dugan told the 14-member jury panel which was seated Tuesday.

“They had a big problem and that problem was Dan Markel. The solution to that problem was this defendant. She was the solution because she had connections to people willing to point a gun at a stranger and pulling the trigger.”

Dugan said there were two initial clues that set investigators on the paths that led to Magbanua and the conspiracy allegedly set in motion by the Adelsons.

The first was the tense divorce between Markel and his ex-wife Wendi Adleson. She gave them their first hint of a motive the day Markel was shot when she told them her brother had joked about hiring a hitman but opted instead to buy her a TV.

A bitter divorce: Markel, Adelson sparred up to the end

Investigators discovered Adelson’s family wanted her and her two children move to South Florida, a point of contention with Markel who was working at Florida State’s law school.

Markel was murdered July 18, 2014 and within four days, Wendi Adelson had moved. Later, their last names were changed to Adelson.

“Just like that their father was effectively erased for their lives and the Adelson family’s problem had been resolved,” Dugan said.

The other path that led to Magbanua, Dugan told jurors, was the sighting of a Toyota Prius leaving Markel’s house just after the shooting.

The car was captured on multiple surveillance cameras tailing Markel and waiting for him in the parking lot of Premier Fitness the day he was killed. Records of cell phones around the gym led police to Garcia and Rivera’s numbers, two Miami numbers which seemed out of place in Tallahassee.

Garcia’s on-again, off-again relationship with Magbanua, and her dating Charlie Adelson allowed investigators to connect the dots, Dugan said.

“The defendant’s boyfriend was looking to hire a hitman and the father of the defendant’s children was the hitman that killed Dan Markel,” she told jurors. “Both of these paths ended with his defendant. Two investigations one conclusion.”

But Magbanua’s Miami defense team, Chris DeCoste and Tara Kawas, say the state has the wrong impression about their client and questioned the crux of their case.

Kawass told jurors that there is no disputing that Charlie Adelson had Dan Markel killed or that Luis Rivera and Sigfredo Garcia were the men who carried out the hit.

“What we do not agree on is whether or not Katherine Magbanua knew about plan to have Dan Markel killed,” she said. “That’s the only thing we don’t agree on. Did Katherine know? It’s that simple.”

Kawass contended that Adelson directly hired Garcia to kill Markel as part of an agreement in which he would have stopped dating Magbanua. A month after Markel’s murder, Adelson did.

She pointed to at least two interactions between Garcia and Adelson in the months before Markel was killed that she said was when Garcia was hired to be a hitman.

“You want her back, no problem I’ll give you $100,000 in cash and I’ll leave her alone if you do this for me,” Kawass told jurors. “The deal was hatched in that moment.”

Magbanua was only tied to the crime by the statements of Luis Rivera, a cooperating state witness expected to take the stand today. He told police he heard Magbanua and Garcia speaking on the phone in the hours after the murder.

“They do not have one piece of direct evidence that says that she knew, the only evidence they have of that is Luis Rivera,” Kawass said, calling him a “convicted murderer” and liar. “It wasn’t until he said I heard Katherine on the phone that they were able to make an arrest.”

9 a.m. |What to expect from the trial as opening arguments begin

Prosecutors are set to lay out their case against Magbanua this morning. Court begins at 8:30 a.m. with opening statements likely to begin around 9.

Her Miami attorneys will follow prosecutors. They have maintained Magbanua’s innocence since her arrest in 2016 and throughout her first trial in 2019.

In a recent interview, they said they believe Markel’s murder wasn’t through their client, but connected to a spat between the father of her children and convicted gunman Sigfredo Garcia and Markel’s former brother-in-law Charlie Adelson.

It is still unclear whether Magbanua will take the stand in her own defense. In 2019, she testified on her own behalf, denying any involvement and pointing the finger at Adelson.

Prosecutors’ case has changed since Magbanua’s last trial. Some of the faces on the stand could.

Jurors will hear for the first time from Garcia, who was convicted of Markel’s murder alongside Magbanua in their 2019 joint trial.

Garcia, at one point a small-time criminal from the Miami area, is likely to detail renting a Toyota Prius with is childhood friend Luis Rivera to drive to Tallahassee to murder Markel.

But what is unclear is what he may divulge about Magbanua’s involvement. Prosecutors say she hired Garcia to shoot Markel at the behest of the law professor’s former brother-in-law, Charlie Adelson.

Garcia is serving a life sentence.

More: Dan Markel murder: Sigfredo Garcia vows appeal in letter to Katherine Magbanua on eve of sentence

Rivera, a leader in the North Miami tribe of the Latin Kings gang, is a cooperating state witness and is expected to again testify during this trial. In exchange for his cooperation, he was sentenced to 12 years for second-degree murder in an agreement with prosecutors that led to Magbanua’s arrest in 2016.

In 2019, he described tailing Markel with Garcia. They stalked him as he dropped his kids off at Creative Preschool, went to Premier gym and drove back to his home on Trescott Drive.

He said he didn’t know the two were coming to Tallahassee for a murder until they were in the car, instead believing it was a robbery.

He told jurors then Magbanua was also involved.

“He said we were going to kill the man for some kids,” Rivera said. “For a lady because the lady wanted her kids back. “It was all Katie.”

Her attorneys are likely to grill Rivera about inconsistencies in his statements to law enforcement about the plot. They say he is unreliable, has made statements that resemble ones already publicly known and has told investigators what they wanted to hear  not the truth.

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This article originally appeared on Tallahassee Democrat: Katherine Magbanua trial: Opening arguments in Dan Markel murder case

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