In one of her first acts in office, newly appointed Hillsborough State Attorney Susan Lopez reversed a decision by the man she replaced, former top prosecutor Andrew Warren, and will seek the death penalty against the suspect in a killing of a Hillsborough elementary school teacher.
Prosecutors will seek a death sentence for Matthew Terry, who is charged with first-degree murder in the slaying of Kay Baker. The third grade math and science teacher at Cypress Creek Elementary in Ruskin was stabbed to death near her home. Terry, who was her boyfriend at the time, was previously convicted in 2017 of stabbing his ex-girlfriend in Michigan.
Florida court rules require prosecutors to file a notice of intent to seek the death penalty within 45 days of a defendant’s arraignment. Terry was arraigned June 21, which made Friday the deadline. Prosecutors filed their death penalty notice that day.
The decision was one of the first moves by Lopez, who was appointed the day before to take over for Warren, the elected state attorney who was ousted by Gov. Ron DeSantis.
DeSantis said he booted Warren from office because the then-state attorney had pledged not to enforce new abortion legislation and because local police complained that he was soft on crime.
In an interview with the Tampa Bay Times on Monday, Warren confirmed that he had decided not to seek the death penalty based on the wishes of Baker’s family.
Kristine Empey, Baker’s step-mother, said Warren’s office asked for the family’s input in the decision.
“We’re not really people who are hugely in favor of the death penalty,” Empey said. “In this case, we were all in agreement that if that was what legal experts wanted to do, we were not opposed to it.”
Empey said Lopez has not contacted the family since the decision was reversed to seek the death penalty.
“We just don’t want him to get out,” she said of Terry.
Hillsborough Public Defender Julianne Holt, whose office is representing Terry, said Monday that the prosecutor on the case, Justin Diaz, notified her office by email on Wednesday — the day before DeSantis announced he had removed Warren — that the State Attorney’s Office had decided it would not seek the death penalty.
Holt said her office gave that news to Terry and his family. Then, on Friday, Holt’s office received the notice stating the state would seek the penalty after all. Holt then notified Terry and his family about the reversal. Holt declined further comment, citing her policy not to comment on open cases.
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A neighbor found Baker, 43, dead in his yard with multiple stab wounds to her neck. She had gone out to a bar with Terry earlier that night.
“I saw you dancing with that guy,” Terry said to Baker angrily before they left for home in a Lithia subdivision at about 11:30 p.m. on May 27, according to court documents.
Hillsborough sheriff’s deputies discovered a knife missing from Baker’s kitchen butcher block. They found Terry, 47, hiding in nearby bushes, wearing a T-shirt and underwear soaked with blood, according to an affidavit. A grand jury indicted Terry on a charge of first-degree murder in June.
The notice to seek the death penalty cites the heinous nature of the crime; according to deputies, Baker’s deep wounds indicated someone had tried to sever her head. It also cites Terry’s prior offense.
“He was merciless in his brutal killing of Ms. Baker, and given his history of violent behavior, we will ask a jury to sentence him to death,” Lopez said in a statement.
Michelle Rogers, Terry’s previous victim, said: “This is the justice I have been waiting for. I think this is the only way he is going to stop hurting people.”
After an argument in their Lansing, Michigan, home, Terry bit, beat and stabbed Rogers multiple times, leaving the mother of his child in intensive care for five days. When Terry was charged with attempted murder, his lawyer argued he acted in self-defense. A jury convicted Terry of assault with intent to cause great bodily harm, and a judge sentenced him to three to 10 years in prison.
“If he gets out, I fear for myself and my family, and for his next victim,” Rogers pleaded in a 2020 letter to the Michigan Parole Board. “Society is in danger.”
But Terry got out after serving three years on a reduced charge. He was discharged in December and moved to Florida to be with Baker, an ex-girlfriend he had reconnected with while awaiting trial. Now, he is awaiting trial in Baker’s murder.
Rogers, 42, plans to testify in the case.
Warren gradually decreased, but did not abandon, the use of the death penalty during his time as state attorney. When he came into office in 2017, he inherited two-dozen pending death penalty cases from his predecessor. When he was ousted last week, his office had five active death penalty cases. This now makes six.
Times Staff Writers Dan Sullivan, Tony Marrero and Sue Carlton contributed to this report.