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The Dan Markel Case: Charlie Adelson, Convicted
Here are answers to your FAQs—including who might be prosecuted next.
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More than nine years after the horrific murder of law professor Dan Markel on July 18, 2014, one of the people who actually orchestrated and paid for the killing has finally been brought to justice. On Monday, a Tallahassee jury found South Florida periodontist Charles “Charlie” Adelson guilty of first-degree murder, conspiracy to commit first-degree murder, and solicitation to commit first-degree murder.
I have been following the Dan Markel case for years—not just as a journalist, but as one of Dan’s friends. We met as colleagues at The Harvard Crimson in the mid-1990s, then reconnected in the mid-aughts as early legal bloggers. His cellphone and email are still on my iPhone. I can still dig up our old email and Facebook Messenger exchanges. And although I wouldn’t say we were close, Dan had met my husband Zach (who tried to get him as a guest on his podcast), and I had met Dan’s ex-wife—the infamous Wendi Adelson. If Dan had never met Wendi, he would surely be alive today. (For clarity, I refer to members of the Adelson family by their first names throughout this story, since several are mentioned.)
The road leading up to today has been long and winding—and I know, from the many emails and texts I have received in the past 24 hours, that many of you have traveled it along with me. But if you’re new to the case (or would like a refresher), read this excellent New York Times article by Patricia Mazzei, which distills almost a decade of developments down to 900 words. The rest of this post assumes familiarity with the Markel case, so if you’re not up on all the latest, read the Times piece or something similar before continuing with mine.
Speaking to reporters after yesterday’s verdict, the Markels—Dan’s mother Ruth, father Phil, and sister Shelly—said their main emotions were gratitude and relief. Similarly, in her own comments to the media, lead prosecutor Georgia Cappleman described herself as relieved. Although she had confidence in her case, her evidence, and the jury, she admitted that “you just never know what’s going to happen” when a jury begins deliberating.
Relief was my main reaction as well. Truth be told, I was nervous going into yesterday. Charlie Adelson’s lawyer, former federal prosecutor and veteran defense attorney Daniel Rashbaum, did a fine job—an opinion of mine that might be unpopular among many followers of this case, but one shared by Georgia Cappleman and Phil Markel, who both commended Rashbaum in their post-verdict remarks. Rashbaum was dealt a hopeless hand, but he played it to the best of his ability.
Charlie testified in his own defense last week, and I must admit that he exceeded my (admittedly low) expectations, coming across as less sleazy and unlikable than I expected. I also felt that Cappleman, who has done great work on this case over the years, didn’t bring her A-game in cross-examination. She seemed at times to miss the forest for the trees—dwelling on details, some of unclear relevance—while not hammering the core absurdity of Charlie’s “I didn’t pay for a murder, I was extorted” defense. I started getting flashbacks to the first trial of Charlie’s ex-girlfriend and co-conspirator, Katherine Magbanua—which ended in a mistrial, despite a mountain of evidence. And I think I wasn’t alone in my anxiety; in the gallery, poor Ruth Markel looked stricken throughout Charlie’s testimony.
Fortunately, Cappleman delivered a superb summation, making clear the utter ridiculousness of Charlie’s “extortion” defense. In a testament to her and second-chair Sarah Dugan’s excellent work, the jury deliberated for only three hours, even though the trial featured eight days of testimony. As Judge Stephen Everett polled the jury, asking each individual juror to confirm the correctness of the verdict—which each of them did, using different words but the same clear confidence—I got chills.
I’ll now answer some Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) I’ve gotten about the case.
What happens next to Charlie Adelson?
Charlie will be sentenced on December 12. Florida law provides for two possible sentences for first-degree murder, life in prison without the possibility of parole or the death penalty. Charlie’s case was not presented as a capital case to a death-qualified jury, so the 47-year-old should expect to spend the rest of his days behind bars. And no, prisoners serving life sentences are not eligible for “Gaintime,” a Florida inmate’s opportunity to get out of prison earlier for meeting certain requirements.
What are his prospects on appeal?
I’m not a Florida criminal defense lawyer, so take this with a grain of salt, but I’d say they are… dim, to be charitable.
Judges don’t like second-guessing juries, so appeals claiming legal error fare better than appeals alleging insufficient evidence. And in this case—which boasted direct as well as circumstantial evidence, in the form of Katherine Magbanua’s testimony—a sufficiency-of-the-evidence appeal would be laughable. The jurors who sat in that courtroom believed Katie Magbanua and disbelieved Charlie Adelson, and they were entitled to do so; such credibility determinations are quintessentially jury calls.
So were there any possible legal errors that could serve as a good basis for appeal? I didn’t watch the entire proceedings gavel to gavel, so please post in the comments or email me if you think I missed something, but based on what I saw, not really. Judge Everett ran a smooth trial, and the defense didn’t object to much—which is important because objecting is how error is “preserved” for appeal.
Wasn’t there some sparring over evidentiary issues?
Yes, Dan Rashbaum complained about some evidentiary rulings—e.g., not letting him introduce certain emails or texts that the prosecution objected to as irrelevant or confusing. And after Judge Everett sustained the objections, Rashbaum often reiterated his complaints “for the record,” i.e., the record on appeal.
But evidentiary rulings are reviewed for abuse of discretion, which means Judge Everett gets affirmed unless he really screwed up. And even if he did mess up, any mistake is subject to harmless-error analysis, which under Florida law means that the alleged error “resulted in a miscarriage of justice.” Given the crushing amount of evidence against Charlie, the only miscarriage of justice would have been an acquittal.
What about the jury instructions?
One area that can be fruitful for criminal appeals is jury instructions. How to instruct a jury presents questions of law, and if a judge gives an erroneous instruction over a defendant’s objection, that could result in reversal of a conviction—especially if the bad instruction relates to an already weak link in the prosecution’s case.
But I watched the charge conference in this case (because I’m a legal nerd), and it was brief and uncontentious. Instructing a jury in a complex white-collar or public-corruption case can be tricky; instructing a jury in a murder case, not so much.
Charlie sounds pretty screwed. What about other members of the Adelson family?
In Charlie’s trial, his mother Donna Adelson loomed large. The prosecution cited significant evidence, including an avalanche of awful emails, suggesting that Donna was the Adelson who hated Dan the most, as well as the Adelson most intent on getting Wendi and her two sons back to South Florida—which could be achieved only by getting Dan out of the picture. I don’t recall Georgia Cappleman’s exact wording, but her basic claim was that Dan was a big problem for Donna, and because of how Donna complained to Charlie about everything, Dan became a big problem for Charlie.
So given this theory of the case, I see it as quite likely that the state will be moving against Donna. Sorry, but “I’m 73 years old and have really bad diarrhea” is not a defense to murder charges.
In her post-verdict comments to reporters, Georgia Cappleman was coy about going after other Adelsons, declining to say whether more prosecutions would be forthcoming. But when asked if the investigation was still ongoing, she answered in the affirmative. Considering that four of the co-conspirators are now behind bars, who might the “ongoing” investigation be focused on besides Donna Adelson?
[UPDATE (11/22/2023, 10:23 p.m.): On the evening of November 13, Donna Adelson was arrested at Miami International Airport, in what appears to be an attempt to flee the country. She and her husband Harvey had one-way plane tickets to Vietnam.]
What about Wendi?
This won’t be a popular opinion among many armchair detectives who want to see Wendi Adelson in an orange jumpsuit, but for better or worse, I don’t expect Wendi to be indicted anytime soon. The standard for bringing a criminal case is whether guilt can be proved beyond a reasonable doubt, and State Attorney Jack Campbell applies it strictly: despite an incredible amount of evidence against Charlie, Campbell didn’t arrest him until April 2022, almost eight years after the murder. [UPDATE (1:03 p.m.): Some have wondered whether Wendi has immunity from prosecution, based on her having testified at Charlie’s trial and Katie Magbanua’s two trials. Although Wendi has “use immunity,” which means that her testimony can’t be used against her, she does not have “transactional immunity,” the blanket immunity that would protect her from being prosecuted for the crimes at issue.]
Please don’t view this as an endorsement of Wendi, who strikes me as a sociopath (one of the nicer things I’d say about her), but the evidence against her is not as compelling as the evidence against her brother and mother. Yes, this time around, the prosecution was more aggressive in implicating Wendi—at least compared to Katie Magbanua’s first trial, when Cappleman seemed almost agnostic on the Wendi issue—and emphasized things like Wendi’s mysterious drive-by of the crime scene. But Wendi just doesn’t show up on some of the most damning evidence, including the recorded conversations between the co-conspirators.
There is some evidence against Wendi, isn’t there?
Yes, she texted with Dan to confirm that he would be home rather than out of town on the day of the murder. Yes, her ex-boyfriend Jeffrey LaCasse believes she might have tried to frame him for the killing. Yes, she suspiciously drove by Dan’s house shortly after the shooting, perhaps because she knew it was happening that morning and wanted to confirm it had been done. And yes, one can certainly make the “how could she not know” argument: “If her mother and brother were going to order a hit on her ex-husband, wouldn’t they have let her in on it?”
But again, does this prove her guilt beyond a reasonable doubt? Wendi has possible responses. For example, she could argue that texting with Dan about his schedule and whereabouts was just something they had to do as divorced parents with joint custody of two kids. And she (or her lawyer) could point to evidence showing how, in the Adelsons’ pathological family dynamic, Donna and Charlie constantly infantilized and sheltered her, so it’s possible they would have done something terrible for her benefit without telling her (so as not to expose her to criminal liability).
Is Katherine Magbanua, who (finally) turned state’s witness, getting a sentence reduction?
Possibly, but we don’t know anything definitive yet. As Magbanua said on the stand, she’s hoping for one—she wants to be reunited with her two kids—but she wasn’t promised anything specific. Georgia Cappleman, in her impromptu press conference after the verdict, said that the State Attorney’s Office is evaluating the situation.
Enough about the criminals. What do the Markels have to say about the verdict?
I have been amazed by how the Markel family has endured this almost decade-long nightmare with preternatural dignity and grace, so I’d like to leave them with the last word. Here is the full statement they released yesterday through their longtime lawyers, Orin Snyder and Matt Benjamin of Gibson Dunn & Crutcher:
Today a jury found Charles Adelson guilty of first-degree murder. It has been more than nine years since Danny was brutally murdered in cold blood, and it has taken a tremendous effort to get to this point.
We are grateful to State Attorney Jack Campbell, who has demonstrated extraordinary focus and leadership. And we are forever indebted to prosecutors Georgia Cappleman and Sarah Kathryn Dugan, along with Rachel Jankowski and Eddie Evans, who have been the public face of the team fighting hard for so many years, to Helene Potlock for guiding us so kindly through this process, and to the entire team at the Leon County State Attorney’s Office.
To law enforcement including Pat Sanford, Craig Isom, Jason Newlin, Chris Corbitt, and so many others, thank you for your commitment to truth. We are also appreciative of the Honorable Stephen Everett for administering such a seamless trial, and to the jury for their attention, commitment, and thoughtful deliberation.
Danny loved the Tallahassee community, which has embraced our family throughout this quest for justice. We are so very grateful for the steadfast support of the Tallahassee community, the online community (especially Justice for Dan), and the media.
While nothing will ever repair the hole torn in our hearts when Danny was stolen from us, we appreciate all those near and far who have joined our family in seeking justice for Dan, and in keeping his memory alive with such dedication. And we are thankful for the support and encouragement we have received from friends and family around the world.
With deepest gratitude,
The Markel Family
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