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Magbanua gets the attention at her own trial as jurors weigh her involvement in Dan Markel's murder

Katherine Magbanua in a gray suit stands next to her attorney, Tara Kawass on the first day of her retrial, May 18, 2022
Chasity Maynard
Tallahassee Democrat, pool
Chasity Maynard

Prosecutors and defense attorneys laid out their cases Wednesday as the retrial of Katherine Magbanua got underway. She is accused of acting as the go-between for the hitmen convicted of killing a Florida State University law professor, and the person recently arrested and charged with orchestrating it.

Magbanua’s first trial in 2019 ended with a hung jury when two members couldn’t decide on her guilt or innocence. She was tried alongside Sigfredo Garcia, the father of her two children. Garcia was convicted of killing Markel with his childhood friend and gang member Luis Rivera, who pled guilty to the murder.

During that first trial, the jury heard testimony that implicated Markel's in-laws for funding what prosecutors call a murder-for-hire. But, up until last month, no one from the Adelson family had been arrested. Then in April, Charlie Adelson, the brother of Markel's ex-wife Wendi, was arrested and charged with murder after a six-year-old FBI audio recording of a meeting he had with Magbanua in a Miami restaurant was improved enough to lead prosecutors to file charges against him.

During Wednesday’s opening arguments in Magbanua’s retrial, Prosecutor Sarah Dugan spoke about the relationship ties between Wendi Adelson, her mother Donna, her brother Charlie, Magbanua and the two men already convicted of killing the professor.

“The police also noticed something else—a distinct pattern in the phone activity surrounding important events in this case," Dugan said.

"The calls always went from Donna Adelson to Charlie Adelson, then from Charlie Adelson to this defendant. And from this defendant to Garcia, and back the other way. Donna Adelson never contacted the defendant. And Charlie Adelson never contacted Sigfredo Garcia. Could it be the Adelsons were insulating themselves from Garica by having this defendant act as the middleman?"

Magbanua's attorneys refute the state's theory, calling it just that.

"The state and I can actually agree on two very important points about this case. Number one, Charles Adelson had Dan Markel killed. We absolutely agree with that. Number two, Louis Rivera and Sigfredo Garcia carried out the hit for Charles Adelson. We agree with that too," said Magbanua's attorney Tara Kawass. Where the defense disagrees, is what role Magbanua played in it. Kawass says none.

“What we do not agree on is whether Katherine Magbanua knew about a plan to have Dan Markel killed. That’s the only thing we do not agree on.”

Prosecutors are trying to draw juror’s attention to money and gifts that flowed from Adelson to Magbanua, Garcia and Rivera after Markel’s murder. Magbanua’s defense attorney, Tara Kawass, says prosecutors have wrongly placed blame on the mother of two, and that Charlie Adelson’s actions, and those of Garcia and Rivera, are their own.

Much of the original trial focused on the Adelson's role in the plot, leaving often gaping holes and questions about where Magbanua fit in, and that's an issue Kawass says is still present this time around, an example, she says, of Magbanua's innocence.

During the first day of the trial, the jury heard from the person who performed Markel’s autopsy, and the person who took photos of the crime scene—the driveway where Markel was shot and killed in his car after returning home from the gym. The trial is expected to last about two weeks.

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Lynn Hatter is a Florida A&M University graduate with a bachelor’s degree in journalism. Lynn has served as reporter/producer for WFSU since 2007 with education and health care issues as her key coverage areas.  She is an award-winning member of the Capital Press Corps and has participated in the NPR Kaiser Health News Reporting Partnership and NPR Education Initiative. 

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