Today marks a new episode in the quest to hold the Adelson family accountable for my colleague and friend Dan Markel’s murder. On November 6, Charlie Adelson, Dan’s brother-in-law, was convicted of murder; he was the one who enlisted his girlfriend, Katie Magbanua, who in turn enlisted the father of her children, Sigfredo Garcia, to commit the murder. Garcia and his accomplice, Luis Rivera, were caught after surveillance tied them to a silver Prius that followed Dan on the morning of his murder. Rivera accepted a plea deal and testified against Sigfredo and Magbanua.
One of the arguments death penalty supporters sometimes make is that, even if no one is sentenced to death, it is important to keep it on the books in order to use it as a bargaining chip for a confession. Ilyana Kuziemko’s 2006 study of this phenomenon in New York (exploiting the natural experiment of its reinstatement in 1995) found that the threat of death penalty leads defendants to accept plea bargains with harsher terms, but does not increase defendants’ overall propensity to plead guilty. The risk of innocent people pleading guilty is exemplified in this short piece by Claudia Salinas. And indeed, Magbanua did not break down when offered this deal, and refused to flip against Charlie. Eventually, when Charlie was indicted and tried for the murder, Magbanua did testify. In this recap she explains why she did it: “Because to give up Charlie, I had to give up the father of my children, and I couldn’t do that[.]”
Charlie’s version of the events was that Garcia and Rivera, through Magbanua, committed the murder on their own accord, in order to blackmail him. Not only was this theory implausible–why go through the trouble of killing someone they didn’t know? Why not threaten to kill Charlie himself?–but it was also contradicted by Charlie’s affectionate relationship with Magbanua and a conversation they had at a restaurant in 2016, in which they colluded about what to do regarding an extortionist (who did not exist; it was a police sting designed to make them talk.)
The latest threat to the Adelsons’ house of cards came on Monday, when Donna (Charlie and Wendi’s mother) was arrested at the airport as she and her husband, Harvey, were trying to flee to Vietnam (which does not have an extradition treaty with the United States). Here is Donna’s arrest affidavit:
I’m trying to read the affidavit with a defense attorney’s eye. Donna’s movements and phone contacts on the day of the murder are far from conclusive proof of her involvement. It would make sense for her to repeatedly contact family members on the day of a shocking event (the murder of a much hated son-in-law). But I think it’s notable that she talks to Charlie more than she talks to Wendi who, presumably, would be more affected by the death of her ex-husband.
The strongest evidence against Donna, it seems, are the conversations she had with Charlie after receiving the fictitious extortion letter. While the transcripts show she was afraid and stressed, and willing to pay the extortionist to go away, a defense attorney will probably argue that these actions were in defense of her son, as she might have learned about the murder after the fact and wanted to protect her family (the words “it concerns both of us” are quite damning, but I suspect a defense attorney would argue that they stem from identification with her son.) But you be the judge: Episode 5 of the podcast Over My Dead Body contains detailed footage of the conversations between Charlie and Donna (fair warning: even though the podcast is extremely well done, and very respectful toward the Markel family and Dan’s friends, it is jarring and upsetting to listen to a popular culture repackaging of a tragedy that took the life of someone you know.)
On a personal note, just as with the previous waves of arrests for Dan’s murder, I find that Donna’s arrest brought me peace of mind, and don’t feel invested in the sentencing phase. However, I continue to follow this up and will post more on this as things develop.