TALLAHASSEE, Fla. - A jury will decide the fate of two South Florida residents charged in the 2014 fatal shooting of Florida State University law professor Daniel Markel.
Jurors began deliberating Thursday afternoon in the trial of Sigfredo Garcia and Katherine Magbanua. They are charged with first-degree murder, conspiracy to commit first-degree murder and solicitation to commit first-degree murder.
During closing arguments, Assistant State Attorney Georgia Cappleman urged the jury to return guilty convictions against Magbanua and her ex-boyfriend.
Defense attorneys asserted that their clients were innocent scapegoats in the government's failure to charge Markel's in-laws, who prosecutors implicated throughout the trial, and asked the jury to reject the testimony of Luis Rivera, who pleaded guilty for his role in the July 2014 shooting in exchange for a reduced sentence.
Markel was shot to death after returning home from the gym and dropping off his two children at day care on the morning of July 19, 2014.
A neighbor testified about seeing a light-colored Prius speed away when he grew suspicious and decided to check on Markel. He discovered Markel in the garage, still in his car and bleeding from the head.
Shards of glass littered the garage floor, and Markel had been shot twice in the head.
An investigation led police to Rivera, who they said conspired with Garcia and Magbanua to kill Markel.
Rivera and Garcia were childhood friends, and Garcia is the father of Magbanua's two children.
Police and prosecutors contend the three were paid $100,000 to carry out Markel's execution.
Rivera, under a plea deal, would later be a witness against Garcia and Magbanua.
Miami defense attorney Saam Zangeneh, who represents Garcia, attacked Rivera's credibility. Zangeneh asserted that the government is wrongly relying on Rivera, a known gang member.
"A gangster killed Dan Markel," Zangeneh told jurors. "Luis Rivera killed Dan Markel."
But Cappleman said Garcia pulled the trigger on the gun that killed Markel and said Magbanua had enlisted the two men to execute the hit on behalf of Markel's in-laws.
A Tallahassee Police Department affidavit said Markel's death was the result of the 2013 contentious divorce from Wendi Adelson, a lawyer who has since moved to South Florida.
Investigators linked Garcia and Rivera to the crime after tracing a Toyota Prius that was seen on surveillance videos following Markel's car to his home. Cellphone records and other evidence established that Garcia and Rivera, both convicted felons, were in Tallahassee on the day that Markel was killed.
Police said Garcia's cellphone was used to call Magbanua about 2,700 times between May 1 and July 19, one day after Markel was killed.
The Prius that was seen in the surveillance videos was rented by Rivera in North Miami, and the SunPass transponder in the car documented its trip -- at the westbound Interstate 75 toll plaza in Broward County at 2:18 p.m. on July 16 and at the westbound I-75 toll plaza in Collier County at 5:23 p.m. on July 18, the affidavit said.
Although the trial focused on Garcia and Magbanua, the courtroom drama was even more intriguing because of who was not on trial -- despite repeated suggestions by Cappleman and defense attorneys of who might have been behind Markel's shooting.
"What enemies had Mr. Markel made that set in motion such a brutal act?" Cappleman asked.
The answer, she said: "His own family."
Indeed, lawyers for Magbanua and Garcia said their clients were only on trial because authorities had failed to bring charges against the relatives of Markel's ex-wife, Wendi Adelson.
Investigators learned that, at the time of the shooting, Adelson's brother, Charlie Adelson, was in a relationship with Magbanua.
Markel had been involved in a bitter divorce with Adelson, who filed for divorce in 2012. Markel later learned that she and their two children had moved to her parents' home in Coral Springs.
In June 2013, a Leon County judge formally denied Adelson's motion for relocation with the children.
"Email evidence indicates Wendi's parents, especially her mother, wanted Wendi to coerce Markel into allowing the relocation to South Florida," the affidavit said.
Early in 2014, Markel sought to enforce the judge's ruling, claiming that Adelson's mother "made disparaging remarks about him to his sons."
Markel asked the court to stop Adelson's mother from having unsupervised time with her grandchildren and to limit the amount of time she spent with them to prevent further disparaging remarks, the affidavit said.
A hearing on the issue was postponed and hadn't been rescheduled when Markel was killed.
Christopher DeCoste, one of Magbanua's attorneys, called prosecutors so desperate for a conviction that they put an innocent woman on trial.
"There's no amount of money you could pay a mother of two for her to risk never seeing her children again," DeCoste said. "She's been in custody for three years. It's time for her to go home."
If found guilty, Garcia could face the death penalty, while Magbanua could spend the rest of her life in prison.
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