Florida Grandparent Visitation Rights Bill Targets Dan Markel Murder Case

Feb 6, 2020
Originally published on February 11, 2020 12:09 pm

Under a new bill being considered by Florida lawmakers, courts could grant grandparents visitation rights under certain conditions. Sen. Jeff Brandes (R-St. Petersburg) is pushing the measure after Dan Markel's murder.

In Florida, grandparents have almost no legal rights to see their grandchildren. That's because parents have a 'right to privacy,' meaning they can raise their child how they see fit. Exceptions include abuse, abandonment, or neglect of the child. Brandes wants to expand those exceptions.

“Imagine your child was murdered and the spouse is implicated in that murder, and you as a grandparent have no rights to see the children of your murdered son or daughter," Brandes told a legislative committee.

He's backing a bill on behalf of Dan Markel's family members. Markel was a Florida State University law professor who was murdered in 2014. Three arrests were made and prosecutors say more could be coming.

Markel's children are being raised by their mother, Wendi Adelson. She and Markel were divorced, and Adelson hasn't allowed Markel's parents to see their grandchildren since 2016, around the time Sigfredo Garcia was arrested for the murder. Garcia was found guilty of killing Markel last year. 

“The heartbreaking reality is that there’s nothing we can do to change the unthinkable," Ruth Markel says. 

A Senate Committee played a recording of her testimony during a meeting to discuss Brandes's bill. His proposal would allow grandparents to petition courts for visitation rights if the grandchild’s parent has been murdered and if the other parent is a person of interest in the crime. Kim Rommel-Enright with the Family Law Section of the Florida Bar says the bill infringes on a parent’s right to privacy.

"It would be fraught with problems if we allowed people who have been accused—not even arrested—to lose their parental rights because they’re under suspicion or someone may think that there may be an investigation," Rommel-Enright told lawmakers. "People are wrongfully accused every day." 

Wendi Adelson’s lawyer, John Lauro, also takes issue with the bill. He says it never defines what ‘a person of interest’ is. “It’s a term that can have different meanings to different people. It could mean simply that we want to get information from someone. But it’s not defined and that’s a serious problem," Lauro says.

Lauro also says the bill is explicitly targeting Adelson. “We have a Florida state legislator saying we’re going to change [the] law in Florida. We’re going to direct it specifically at this single mom, but in the process, we’re about to get on a very hairy slippery slope because we’re now inviting the courts and Florida prosecutors to override parental decision making," Lauro says.

During a Senate committee meeting on the bill, members acknowledged the proposal would likely go before the Florida Supreme Court if passed. 

“Our friends at the Florida Bar say we’re in a dangerous position," says Sen. Aaron Bean (R-Jacksonville), "but I think it’s worth going there because the benefit of that relationship of a grandparent is worth fighting for. So I encourage you to stand with Senator Brandes and let’s fight for what’s in the best interest of children—and that is to have relationships with their grandparents."

In a follow-up statement to this article, Adelson's attorney Lauro says Markel's parents had regular personal visits with the children until the release of an e-mail to the media between Ruth Markel and prosecutor Georgia Cappelman. In the email, Ruth Markel talks about the need for an emergency placement for the children upon impending arrests.

"Without telling Wendi, the Markel family engaged in these discussions with the prosecutors to place the children in foster care. For whatever reason, the prosecutor released these emails publicly, which has caused great harm to Wendi and her family. It is simply not correct to say that contact was cut off after Mr. Markel’s passing. Wendi has tried to obtain an answer as to why the Markel family would take this position, but no satisfactory explanation has been forthcoming. The politicians who are dealing with this issue and interfering in this family‘s life have completely ignored the actual facts and circumstances that caused Wendi to make her decision. Now they want to place the power with prosecutors to trigger a court review of parental decision making, when it was prosecutors who created the circumstances in the first place. The conduct by certain legislators in this regard is outrageous and despicable and hopefully sunshine will have a disinfectant effect," Lauro wrote to WFSU. 

Attorney's for the Markel family claim their conversations with state prosecutors never involved having the children placed in foster care. They say their concerns for a "backup emergency safety plan" for the kids remains, "a very real and credible concern" given that members of the Adelson family have been implicated in orchaestrating Dan Markel's murder. No members of the family have been arrested.  

The bill could also affect families where one parent is missing or is in a vegetative state.

Update/Correction: This story has been edited to include an updated response from attorney John Lauro and to correct an earlier statement that Markel's family has not had visitation from the children since his death. The last time the children and their grandparents were in contact was prior to the 2016 arrest of Sigfredo Garcia. Update 2: Includes rebuttal from Markel family. 

Copyright 2020 WFSU. To see more, visit WFSU.