TAMPA — A jury on Tuesday took little more than an hour to find a man guilty of murdering his girlfriend, a Hillsborough teacher.
After five days of testimony spanning two weeks, a panel of seven women and five men deliberated a little over an hour Tuesday afternoon before finding Matthew Terry guilty of first-degree murder in the slaying of Kay Baker, who was stabbed to death May 28 outside her Lithia home.
The case moved into a penalty phase Wednesday morning, with a prosecutor urging the same jury to recommend a death sentence.
Terry, 47, stood with his chin held high, but showed little reaction to the jury’s decision when it was announced. Baker’s family members sat in the courtroom gallery. Some wept.
The verdict capped a trial that moved with remarkable speed. Terry did not waive his right to a speedy trial, an unusual move in a serious case. It was also rocked by politics ― the suspension of State Attorney Andrew Warren and his replacement with Susan Lopez, and her subsequent reversal of Warren’s decision against seeking capital punishment.
Lopez sat in the rear of the courtroom as the verdict was read.
In closing arguments, the jury was presented with two theories of what happened.
In the state’s version, Terry was a controlling boyfriend who stabbed Baker to death in a fit of drunken jealousy after a late-night outing with friends. In the defense version, Terry tried to render aid to Baker after she was attacked by a fleeing home intruder, then was attacked and stabbed himself as he pursued the unknown assailant through the darkness.
“One person has Kay Baker’s blood on his hands both literally and figuratively,” Assistant State Attorney Justin Diaz said in closing arguments. “Do not believe in the phantom killer.”
Baker, 43, a third grade math and science teacher at Cypress Creek Elementary School in Ruskin, had gone with Terry to the Landing Bar and Grill, near her home in Lithia. People who were with the couple that night testified that Terry became hostile after he saw another man dance briefly alongside Baker as she returned from a restroom. Baker insisted she didn’t dance with the man. On the way home, she phoned a friend and told her to explain as much to Terry.
She later sent a text: lol sorry for that. so dumb ... all good now.
A little more than 30 minutes later, neighbors near Baker’s home heard a thump and what they described as a woman gasping and crying. They came outside and found her lying in the grass between two houses, bleeding from a gaping wound in her neck. She was declared dead shortly after emergency personnel arrived.
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A bedroom window stood open on the side of Baker’s house, the screen pushed out. Bloodstains led away from the murder scene, through backyards and into a wooded strip along Lithia Pinecrest Road. It was there, amid the high brush, that deputies found Terry. He was lying on his back, clad only in a shirt and underwear, bleeding from wounds to his neck. Baker’s blood was on his hand.
Before the jury heard closing arguments Tuesday, they heard a little about his past — a 2017 case in which he stabbed and nearly killed his former girlfriend.
Terry’s public defenders fought vigorously against having any details of that case come before the jury, arguing that it would be prejudicial.
Judge Christopher Sabella allowed the victim, Michelle Rogers, to testify.
On Tuesday morning, she took the witness stand and recounted her memory of St. Patrick’s Day night 2017. She described how, after a day of barhopping near their home in Lansing, Michigan, Terry attacked her in her home.
She described being punched, thrown into a door, pinned down and having her head slammed into the floor. She described being stabbed repeatedly as Terry told her, “I’m going to kill you.” She fled through a garage door to the snow-covered front yard, where the attack continued before neighbors alerted police.
A jury saw images of Rogers’ face covered in gauze, her eyes blackened. Terry served prison time for the attack. He was released last year.
The defense suggested that the state brought Rogers to the witness stand to bolster a lack of evidence in the Baker case.
“What does that have to do with Kay Baker?” Assistant Public Defender Donna Perry asked the jury. “Absolutely nothing. They put her on to manipulate you into thinking they have evidence. Because they don’t.”
Hints of the defense strategy began to show as the state’s moved toward a conclusion. Terry’s lawyers questioned the steps a DNA analyst took to test some of the blood evidence, suggesting that the analyst had not considered the possibility that a third person’s DNA might have been present in some of the test samples.
They also noted that investigators had only tested 10 of the more than 40 bloodstains they found. A detective explained that the Florida Department of Law Enforcement only allows testing of five samples at a time, a process that takes a few weeks to complete. Further testing was unable to be completed in time for the trial.
The defense also highlighted the lack of one key piece of evidence: the murder weapon. A 3-inch paring knife was missing from Baker’s kitchen. But a search of the area turned up no knife.
Terry, who sat quietly throughout the trial, appeared to become emotional at times. He sniffled when he saw photos of Baker. His eyes watered. He was given the opportunity to tell the jury what happened, but chose not to.
“My desire is to testify,” he told the judge. “However, I am going to follow my attorneys’ advice and not testify.”
In closing arguments, Perry said Terry was a man who’d watched as the woman he loved had her life taken.
“This is the woman he lived with, the woman he loved, the woman he moved here to be with,” Perry said. “This was someone he loved. And nothing they have presented changes that.”
Diaz, in rebuttal, ridiculed the defense’s unknown-assailant theory, and suggested it defied logic. He highlighted numerous points, among them, Terry’s lack of defensive wounds. He emphasized the brutality and premeditated intent he said was evident with each thrust of the knife.
“That is who Matthew Terry is,” he said.