A Miami man was convicted of first-degree murder Friday in the death of Florida State University law professor Daniel Markel, but a mistrial was declared for his girlfriend, Katherine Magbanua, whom prosecutors considered the crucial cog to the in-laws they believe conspired to have him killed.
Sigfredo Garcia, 37, was convicted of shooting Markel twice in the head in July 2014 while he was parked in the driveway of his Tallahassee home. Garcia’s sentencing trial will start on Monday and prosecutors are seeking the death penalty.
Prosecutors say 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 alleged, between Garcia, the alleged triggerman; Magbanua, his longtime girlfriend; and Garcia’s childhood friend Luis Rivera, the head of North Miami’s Latin Kings gang, now in federal prison for racketeering.
The alleged motive for the murder, the state argued, was to allow Wendi Adelson to relocate her children to South Florida after her bitter divorce from Markel. But the state has come up short in its quest for enough evidence to arrest anyone in the family, and prosecutors had hoped for a Magbanua conviction to give them new leverage.
Magbanua testified on Wednesday that she knew nothing about the plot to kill Markel, and denied involvement in the conspiracy. But, after sitting through the three-week trial she said she was now convinced that Charlie Adelson, her former boyfriend, was the one who financed the murder. She offered no explanation.
In a dramatic turn of events Friday, the 12-person jury asked the judge — for the fourth time since they began deliberations late Thursday — to answer their questions about who is considered the principal of a crime, a sign they were clearly confused about how to evaluate the role of one or both of the defendants in the murder.
“If we have a hung jury on one person can we give a verdict on another?’’ the jurors asked before noon on Friday. “Can you be a principal to premeditation if you do not premeditate it yourself?”
The answer to both questions, according to Judge James C. Hankinson, was yes.
After more than 11 hours of deliberations, the jury, comprising 10 women and two men, announced they could not reach a unanimous verdict on the murder charges against Magbanua, the 34-year-old mother of two children with Garcia. Hankinson declared it a mistrial.
The mixed verdict was a bittersweet victory for the state in a case that has rocked Florida’s capital city, involved an elaborate FBI undercover operation, and consumed the time and resources of prosecutors for the last five years.
“I can’t lie. It’s been a lot of work and I’m really happy to get the beginnings of justice for the Markel family,’’ said Assistant State Attorney Georgia Cappleman.
Markel’s parents, Ruth and Phil Markel, who have been barred from seeing their two grandchildren by the Adelson family, sat in the courtroom nearly every day of the three-week trial. They urged prosecutors to keep going until Magbanua is tried again and convicted.
“Danny was brutally murdered in cold blood. After waiting five long years, we are relieved that at least one of the people responsible for Danny’s murder was convicted today and are grateful for the tireless efforts of law enforcement and the State Attorney’s Office,’’ said the Markels’ lawyers, Orin Snyder and Matthew Benjamin, in a statement. “Yet justice was only partially served.”
They added: “There is more work to be done to ensure that everyone responsible for Danny’s murder is held accountable. Until that day comes, we will continue to fight for complete justice and to be reunited with our grandchildren, Danny’s two young boys, whom we love and miss dearly.”
Cappleman said she will start over with a new trial against Magbanua, the woman she believes worked with Charlie Adelson, Magbanua’s former boyfriend and the brother of Markel’s ex-wife, to arrange the shooting a day before Markel had planned to leave town.
Charlie Adelson and his family have denied all involvement in the murder. His attorney, David O. Markus, said Friday that the reason the state has not charged family members is because there is nothing there. “After the hung jury, their prospects have gone down, not up,’’ he said.
Prosecutors say Charlie Adelson, as well as his mother, Donna, plotted the shooting to end a court order that had barred Wendi Adelson from relocating her children to South Florida after the divorce.
Before Hankinson declared the mistrial, and after the jury announced it was deadlocked, Cappleman was asked if she would attempt to negotiate a deal with Magbanua in exchange for information on others involved in the crime. She was circumspect.
Magbanua’s “story right now is: ‘I didn’t know anything,’ ’’ Cappleman said. So in order for Magbanua to help prosecute the Adelsons, “she’d be inconsistent, and I would have to live with that if I was going to put her on the stand.”
She added that “as of right now, I don’t have any indication she has any plans to” provide prosecutors with any information.
Garcia’s attorney Saam Zangeneh said the jury rejected the prosecution’s claim that this was a case of murder for hire. Magbanua’s attorneys alleged that Garcia was jealous and bitter about his on-and-off girlfriend dating Charlie Adelson.
“They thought that my client committed this murder out of his love for Ms. Magbanua,’’ Zangeneh said. “If he’s not doing this for money, he must be doing it for love.”
The judge decided to have both defendants tried at the same time, even though lawyers for Magbanua argued that since she was not accused of being present during the shooting, the charges against her were very different and trying her at the same time as Garcia could interfere with her right to a fair trial.
Markus, Charlie Adelson’s attorney, said he hoped that the Markel family “feels some sense of justice and relief that Garcia was convicted.”
“This trial must have been so hard and taxing on them,’’ he said. He added that the prosecution also showed it “couldn’t prove its theory on Katie after three years of really thorough investigation and preparation. This is why they have not charged Charlie and his family — the case simply isn’t there.
“We don’t charge people based on amateur speculation,’’ he continued. “Professional prosecutors rightfully understood that it couldn’t prove a case against Charlie before this trial.”
Cappleman said the jury’s decision to convict Garcia on conspiracy charges shows “they at least thought that they were involved in a conspiracy.” She added that the conspiracy she alleged “did involve some Adelsons.”
She said it will be up to Garcia’s attorneys to offer any additional information to help her target others in the crime. “I don’t do the reaching out,’’ she said. “They’ll have to let me know.”
Zangeneh, however, said he believes the focus will now be tighter on Charlie Adelson, as well as his mother, Donna, and sister Wendi.
“If I was one of those three, I would be very nervous because now is when certain things that couldn’t have happened in the past are options,’’ said Zangeneh. “Figure it out.”
The jury will return on Monday to hear arguments about whether to sentence Garcia to death or to life in prison. They are expected to issue a ruling on Tuesday.
Mary Ellen Klas can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @MaryEllenKlas