Donna Adelson pleads ‘not guilty’, and pleads, and pleads some more

'Ms. Adelson, please keep your comments to yourself.'

Presumptions of innocence …

Donna Adelson appeared in a purple jumpsuit before Judge Stephen Everett on Monday afternoon in Leon County — the same place authorities allege Donna’s daughter Wendi Adelson hated so deeply that she and her family were willing to kill Dan Markel — the father of her children — so she could leave.

The arraignment was held in the same room where Donna’s middle child, Charlie Adelson, was convicted of Markel’s murder, plus conspiracy, and solicitation, just over a month ago. And, when he is sentenced for these crimes tomorrow, he’ll sit in the same seat Donna was cuffed at today.

Wendi, who has been named as a co-conspirator in Markel’s murder, wasn’t present to see or support the family matriarch despite a relationship she described as extremely close as recently as during Charlie’s trial. In a 2015 podcast, Wendi described Donna as a “selfless, generous, and loving” person who has been “more like a co-parent than a grandmother” to the Markel boys.

Indeed, Donna’s status as a grandmother is one that her team of lawyers continues to remind them about — perhaps thinking that it paints their client sympathetically. And maybe, in other cases, it would. But anyone who follows this case knows that Donna’s motive for Markel’s murder relates directly to her desperate desire for Wendi and the boys to relocate to South Florida even after the court ruled decisively that the children remain in Tallahassee near their father. Indeed, Markel was murdered not too long after he filed a motion of his own, seeking to limit Donna’s unsupervised time with his sons, citing multiple occasions where she disparaged him in front of the children.

But today, Donna wasn’t chaperoning her grandsons to the playground, piano, or tennis lessons, as she was overheard doing in FBI wiretaps. And she wasn’t preparing to feed them dinner while Wendi worked late so she could receive information from her then-boss, a federal judge, who had information to pass along about this case. Rather, Donna was chaperoned in by Sheriff’s Deputies, waived her right to have the findings of the injunction read, and through her lawyer, pleaded not guilty.

… and presumptuous assumptions

Donna’s defense filed a motion last week, saying she wanted house arrest instead of confinement, citing conditions her lawyer claims are cruel and unusual. (We might give her “unusual” – at least in context to the life Donna was leading a few weeks ago in a multimillion-dollar condo. But “cruel” – that’s another story.)

Defense attorney Marissel Descalzo told Everett that Donna had been deprived of the ability to consult with attorneys, forced to eat with her hands, and so on. “Ms. Adelson is not able to participate in her own defense,” said Descalzo. “She’s not permitted to have paper.”

While Leon County Jail isn’t the Continuum or Icon, the condo communities where Donna and Harvey Adelson resided over the past many years, the level of supervision Donna is experiencing is consistent with what other inmates on suicide watch receive — and Donna was given access to communications.

Representatives from the Leon County Sheriff’s Office and Leon County Jail were present, including attorney Gregg Toomey, who shared that there’s been “no impediment” to Donna “seeing her lawyer over and above using her tablet ” but that she isn’t permitted a headset, “which could be used as a ligature.”

When Descalzo was pressed by Judge Everett, she conceded that her client has, in fact, been provided access to options for communications with her attorney – just not in the way she’d prefer.

Toomy affirmed to Everett that Donna’s level of restrictions are due to threats of self-harm – heard both on a call recorded pre-arrest where Donna told Charlie she would kill herself with sleeping pills if she wasn’t able to escape to Vietnam, and again when Donna was booked into the jail, she made a statement saying she wanted to die.

“The medical professionals see her every day and they are not confident she is safe,” he said.

Donna tried to interrupt, shaking her head and vocalizing displeasure. There were times when she even laughed – not dissimilar to how Charlie expressed himself, non-verbally, in his trial.

“Ms. Adelson, please keep your comments to yourself,” Everett scolded her.

“Is there a procedure with regards to inmates with self-harm concerns?” Everett asked.

“There is,” Toomy replied, “In every single jail.”

Everett asked whether medical records were provided to Donna’s lawyers.

“Nobody has asked,” Toomy replied.

An increasingly aggressive Descalzo then grilled Chief Norman Mack, the supervisor at Leon County Jail, about how often Donna has been evaluated by psychiatrists and whether it was appropriate to keep her under suicide watch.

Mack remained steady, repeating that the medical team alerts him when a change in an inmate’s supervision status occurs – that it’s not his call.

Descalzo protested that she had made outreach to the General Counsel’s office, but the General Counsel himself – James Pimentel – put on the record that he’d never heard from any representative of Donna’s.

“I believe there has been a violation of the Constitution here,” Descalzo persisted, claiming that the jail in Miami-Dade had cleared Donna for general population but that “all of a sudden” in Leon County she’s considered a suicide risk again.

Everett disagreed that a constitutional violation had happened. But he did ask the jail to find a way to allow Donna to confer privately with her lawyers, even if under her current supervision level.

“The Sheriff runs the jail,” Everett said, “And I respect that.”

Descalzo seemed uncertain of her role or out of her element, similar to when she had requested to “waive extradition” to Tallahassee — a process that doesn’t exist for within-state transfers. (Then again, based on how Wendi described her version of Tallahassee in her barely fictional book “This is Our Story,” Florida’s Capital city seems to be thought of by this family as a third-world country, a stop on the way “back to civilization.”)

Also present in the courtroom was Dan Rashbaum, Charlie’s attorney who is largely assumed to represent the whole family’s interests. He previously represented Donna and Harvey, and his defense of Charlie was clearly written to maximize the protection of Wendi and their parents as well. He is also the source of information regarding Donna’s complaints about her local accommodations, having met with Donna in person last week following a visit with Charlie.

A case management hearing is set for Jan. 9, 2024, at 2:30 p.m. Descalzo said her client would want to proceed quickly to trial after that.


Florida Politics provides ongoing coverage of the Markel murder case, which is drawing international media attention to Florida’s capital city. Our reporting draws from sources including contributor Karen Cyphers of Sachs Media, who, with attorney Jason Solomon, advocates with the grassroots group “Justice for Dan” to draw attention to the case and provide analysis relevant to Florida’s political, advocacy, and legal communities.

Peter Schorsch

Peter Schorsch is the President of Extensive Enterprises Media and is the publisher of, INFLUENCE Magazine, and Sunburn, the morning read of what’s hot in Florida politics. Previous to his publishing efforts, Peter was a political consultant to dozens of congressional and state campaigns, as well as several of the state’s largest governmental affairs and public relations firms. Peter lives in St. Petersburg with his wife, Michelle, and their daughter, Ella. Follow Peter on Twitter @PeterSchorschFL.


  • Paul

    December 12, 2023 at 7:57 am

    Thank you Peter for your in depth coverage of this ongoing tragic story. I take issue with your implied assumption that Wendi Adelson
    was in on the plot to kill her former husband. I haven’t seen any evidence to support that assumption. I believe that Charlie(and perhaps Donna) plotted the murder without Wendi’s assistance, and so likely didn’t inform her of what exactly had been planned.

  • Frank E

    December 14, 2023 at 11:48 am

    @Paul – You are joking right? The prosecutor will be likely arresting Wendi next! Love this prosecutor, she is 3 for 3 on life sentences soon to be 5 for 5! Hope the Adelsons end up broke and all in prison where they belong!

    @Mr Schorsch – thank you for your coverage!

Comments are closed.


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