Legal community rocked by FSU law professor's killing

Dan Markel, a criminal law professor at Florida State University and leader in the world of online legal scholarship, was shot at his home in Tallahassee on July 18. Investigators say he was targeted.
Dan Markel, a criminal law professor at Florida State University and leader in the world of online legal scholarship, was shot at his home in Tallahassee on July 18. Investigators say he was targeted.
Published July 26, 2014

TALLAHASSEE — Thirty-six hours before he was gunned down in his Tallahassee home, law professor Dan Markel was pondering the death penalty.

On that night, July 16, his thoughts drifted to the number of death row inmates whose sentences had been vacated in California. He posted an essay on the subject to his widely read legal blog before going to bed.

About 11 a.m. on July 18, Markel, 41, was shot in the head. He died the following day.

Investigators say Markel was targeted. He was killed in his garage, according to a police report released Friday. Markel's black Honda Accord was being processed by a forensics unit, the keys still inside.

Police haven't said much more about the crime, which happened in a quiet, upscale neighborhood. The mystery has rocked the legal community and spurred scores of blog posts and online tributes.

"It's not only gruesome, it's spooky," said Doug Berman, a law professor at Ohio State University whom Markel referenced in his final blog post. "He was someone who was constantly engaged with criminal justice ideas, and thinking about how to handle human tragedies in profound ways. His obviously criminal slaughter brings that all together."

A native of Toronto, Markel had an academic track record that opened doors. Harvard College, Phi Beta Kappa. The University of Cambridge. Harvard Law School. Editor of the Harvard Law Review.

After graduation, Markel landed a prestigious clerkship with a federal appellate judge and did some white-collar criminal-defense work for an elite firm in Washington.

He was hired as an assistant law professor at Florida State before his 33rd birthday.

That same year, Markel proposed to Wendi Adelson, a third-year law student at the University of Miami. Like Markel, Adelson had graduated Phi Beta Kappa from an elite college in Boston and received a master's degree at Cambridge.

The engagement took place in a small town in northern Israel overlooking the Sea of Galilee. Both Markel and Adelson valued their Jewish faith.

"All I can say is: Wow, did I win the lottery of life," he wrote on his blog when he returned from the trip.

The couple married in Boca Raton, not far from where Adelson attended high school. Their wedding announcement appeared in the New York Times.

In Tallahassee, Markel's star ascended. He launched a legal blog, a forum for law professors called PrawfsBlawg. The site gave scholars an avenue to vet ideas and listed job opportunities.

PrawfsBlawg attracted a national following, propelling Markel into a network of high-profile scholars. He was invited to conferences nationwide.

Markel's scholarship, which raised philosophical questions about the justice system and argued against the death penalty, also received national attention. His writing was featured in the New York Times and Slate.

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"He was very eager to engage other academics in dialogue," said Berman, the Ohio State professor. "He believed the more you got resistance to your idea, the more refined and sophisticated the idea would become."

But Markel also had critics, including some conservative bloggers and law school skeptics who complained PrawfsBlawg failed to challenge the legal establishment.

In 2012, Markel was the subject of an anonymous comment on the blog Inside the Law School Scam.

"Bullies like this need to be made radioactive," the writer said, alleging Markel had deleted anonymous comments on PrawfsBlawg. "Their arrogance and imperiousness speaks for itself. All means necessary must be employed."

On campus, Markel was known as a perfectionist whose high-level thinking could be difficult to understand. He could be acerbic and had a reputation for chastising students who answered questions incorrectly or failed to pay attention in class.

"If you didn't do the reading, he was going to call you out on it," said Ryan Wechsler, who graduated this year.

But Wechsler said Markel was also the professor who reached out to him about job opportunities and invited his students to his house for dinner.

Markel also was devoted to his two sons: Benjamin, born in 2009; and Lincoln, born in 2010. They called him "Abba," the Hebrew word for father.

"The house was like a playpen," Wechsler said. "The living room was just for the kids. There were toys on the floor, crayon drawings all over the walls. You could tell he loved being a father."

His world changed dramatically when Adelson filed for divorce in September 2012.

She had been promoted to visiting clinical professor at the Florida State law school and published a novel about human trafficking. But her attorneys said she was unhappy in the marriage.

In legal pleadings, Markel's attorneys said the separation surprised him. They said Adelson hired movers while her husband was away for a business trip, and that she left town with her belongings and the children.

"This abrupt and cruel departure shocked Mr. Markel, who, in a six-year marriage unmarked by any abuse, addiction or infidelity, was devoted to his wife and children," his attorneys wrote. "For six weeks, Ms. Adelson gave no correct information regarding where she lived with the children."

After the divorce, the couple continued to battle over money and family heirlooms.

Adelson did not return calls from the Times/Herald. Her attorney, Jimmy Judkins, said she was "in shock" after Markel's death and had left Tallahassee.

Judkins said Adelson knew nothing about the killing but had spoken to investigators.

"She is probably more curious about what happened than anybody because while the police said he was targeted, at one time, it was her house, too," he said. "It's just discomforting to her. She's worried for her children."

Police have released photographs of a gray or silver Toyota Prius seen in the neighborhood the day of the crime, but they caution it may have no connection.

Some of Markel's friends and colleagues have offered their own theories online. Dozens more have shared their memories.

On the New York University Law School website, professor Roderick Hills recalled having drinks with Markel in Brooklyn the week before he died. The two had discussed Israel, blogging and Markel's new relationship.

In his tribute, Hills likened Markel to "a human Grand Central Station, bustling with extraordinary energy to bring people together."

"When someone like Dan is torn out of the web, it leaves a lot of loose ends," he wrote.