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Lawmakers approve a new path for grandparents to petition for visitation rights

Katherine Magbanua's Defense Attorney Chris DeCoste shows a map of the people involved in the state's murder-for-hire plot to kill Dan Markel.
Alicia Devine, Pool
/
Tallahassee Democrat
Katherine Magbanua's defense attorney, Chris DeCoste, shows a map of the people involved in the state's murder-for-hire plot to kill Dan Markel (2019).

For years, the parents of a slain Florida State University professor have been the faces of an effort to secure grandparents' visitation rights under certain conditions. This year, a bill allowing for it is on its way to the governor after the Senate gave it unanimous approval Wednesday.

FSU law professor Dan Markel was murdered in 2014. Two men were convicted in his death in 2019 and a third person with ties to the family of Markel’s in-laws will stand trial again later this year. Throughout the process, Markel’s two children haven’t seen their paternal grandparents in years, and the grandparents have turned to the legislature for help. After several tries, the bill, informally known as the “Markel Act” has gotten the legislative okay.

"This is something the Children and Families Committee has been working on for a long time and I think it's going to be a wonderful thing for families across Florida," said Sen. Lauren Book, who stepped down as head of the Senate's Children and Families Committee last year to become the Senate Minority leader.

HB 1119 by Tampa Republican Rep. Jackie Toledo and its Senate companion by Republican Keith Perry would allow the courts to approve grandparent visitation requests if the surviving parent of a child or children is found to be criminally or civilly liable for the death of the other parent.

Prosecutors in the Markel case have called it a murder-for-hire, and accuse defendant Katherine Magbanua of acting as a middle person between the Markel's in-laws, the Adelson family, and the two men who killed Markel in the garage of his Betton Hills home.

No member of the Adelson family has been charged in the case and all have maintained they were not involved.

“At the end of the day, many of us got more development from our grandmother or grandfather than we did any other person," said Sen. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala.

"I think this has been a tough find because you don’t want to create a whole new category of rights, but I think this is a relationship that’s much needed and much valued," he said in support of the bill.

Not every family relationship is a positive one and Florida has traditionally had strong laws against grandparent visitation…noting that parents have sole authority to determine the upbringing of their children, and that includes whether parents want their kids to interact with their grandparents. In 2015, the legislature managed to expand grandparent rights to allow them to sue for visitation if one parent is dead, missing, or in a permanent vegetative state. That effort was spearheaded by Democratic Sen. Darryl Rouson.

"This goes a little bit further than what we passed before and it’s a good bill," he said.

While the measure does expand grandparent visitation—it’s still not guaranteed that grandparents will get it. The measure remains extremely narrow in its scope and whether it could apply to the Markel family won’t be known for some time, as that case and investigations are ongoing.