TAMPA — Matthew Robertson Terry is set to face trial Monday, a little more than five months after he was accused of fatally stabbing his girlfriend outside her Lithia home.
Barring any last-minute detours, his journey through the Hillsborough court system will be the fastest of any death penalty case in recent memory. Most serious criminal cases typically take at least a couple of years.
Why has Terry’s case moved so quickly? He hasn’t waived his right to a speedy trial.
It’s a right enshrined in the U.S. Constitution, but one that defense lawyers typically waive in serious cases for reasons of practicality. Foregoing a speedy trial gives the defense time to scrutinize evidence, probe witnesses and strategize.
Sometimes, though, defendants don’t waive the right. Their reasons vary. Seasoned defense lawyers say it can be anything from a client’s stubbornness to a cagey strategy that aims to catch prosecutors off-guard.
“This is a very rare move,” said Tampa defense attorney Eddie Suarez, who is not involved in the Terry case. “Having said that ... if you think the state is not as prepared as you are, then not waiving speedy trial and moving toward a quick trial can make sense.”
Terry, 47, is charged with first-degree murder in the May 28 killing of Kay Baker, who was a teacher at Cypress Creek Elementary School in Ruskin. A neighbor near her Lithia home heard screaming a little after midnight and found Baker lying between two houses. Her throat had been cut. Sheriff’s deputies later found Terry in bushes nearby.
The case also is unusual for the political forces surrounding it. Andrew Warren, who was Hillsborough County’s state attorney when the crime occurred, decided not to seek the death penalty against Terry. Gov. Ron DeSantis suspended Warren from office Aug. 4 and appointed Susan Lopez to replace him. In one of her first acts, Lopez reversed Warren’s decision, declaring that the state would, indeed, seek the death penalty.
With no speedy trial waiver, Hillsborough prosecutors must assemble a complicated case within a 175-day window. In a blizzard of pretrial court hearings in recent weeks, they’ve sparred with Terry’s defense attorneys over the death penalty and what evidence a jury will hear.
“We are ready for trial,” said Gary Weisman, chief of staff to Lopez. “I have no reason to think that (the trial) will be continued. So we have done everything we need to do to be ready.”
Hillsborough Public Defender Julianne Holt, whose office represents Terry, said the decision not to waive speedy trial is a strategic one “with a full appreciation of the severity of the case.”
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“I think there’s been a lot of effort on both sides to get this case ready,” Holt said.
Capital cases typically see years of litigation. Occasionally, though, they can zip through court.
It happened in Citrus County in 2013. Prosecutors there accused Byron Lee Boutin of ordering his girlfriend to kill another woman amid a dispute over drugs.
Boutin demanded a speedy trial. His lawyer, Charles Vaughn, said he tried to talk him out of it. But Boutin insisted.
The trial occurred about eight months after Boutin’s arrest. Cops testified about the crime scene and evidence. But the state seemed to struggle as they tried to prove their case, Vaughn said.
“It was obvious they were foundering,” Vaughn said. “Their witnesses were not as well prepared.”
The jury found Boutin guilty of a lesser crime of second-degree murder. The verdict eliminated the death penalty as a possible sentence; Boutin got life in prison.
Forcing a speedy trial is far from a sure victory, though.
“It’s a risky strategy,” said Tampa defense attorney John Lauro. “The state has a lot of resources. They can get cranked up pretty quickly, and then you’re kind of stuck.”
Nevertheless, it can be worth the gamble. Lauro recalled a federal racketeering case he handled about two decades ago in New York. Evidence against his client included hours of wiretap recordings. The lawyer surmised the government hadn’t had time to scrutinize it all. His client chose not to waive his right to a speedy trial. The prosecutors weren’t ready, he said. It led to an acquittal.
Tampa defense lawyer Chip Purcell has used the speedy trial strategy more than most. It’s a decision to be made through a careful assessment, he said.
“You have to look at your facts,” he said. “Figure out what your defense is on day one. Figure out, is this case going to be better if I push it?”