TAMPA — For the vicious slaying of his girlfriend, Matthew Terry should spend the rest of his life in prison, a Tampa jury decided Thursday.
The same panel that earlier this week found Terry guilty of first-degree murder in the death of Kay Baker deliberated about an hour before rejecting the death penalty.
Hillsborough Circuit Judge Christopher Sabella sentenced Terry to life in prison without the possibility of parole, the only remaining option. Addressing Terry, the judge referenced his prior conviction in Michigan, where he served prison time for stabbing and nearly killing another woman.
“I don’t know what happened in Michigan as far as the trial and the sentence,” Sabella said. “But based on what I heard, I believe you should have been in prison in Michigan, and that Miss Baker should still be alive. This is Florida and you’re going to prison for the rest of your life.”
The case was the first in which acting Hillsborough State Attorney Susan Lopez has sought a death sentence. In doing so, she reversed her predecessor, Andrew Warren, who’d decided against seeking capital punishment for Terry shortly before he was suspended from office this summer by Gov. Ron DeSantis.
In a two-day penalty trial, a prosecutor sought to convince jurors that Baker’s murder was so heinous, atrocious and cruel that Terry deserved to be executed. The state also pointed to Terry’s prior conviction as a reason to favor the death penalty.
“What Matthew Terry did to Kay Baker was conscienceless. It was pitiless,” Assistant State Attorney Justin Diaz said in closing arguments. “Kay Baker suffered. She was tortured.”
Terry’s defense urged the jury to spare his life.
“I’m not going to stand up here and say a life sentence is unjust,” Assistant Public Defender Jamie Kane told the jury. “It is not. It is perfectly just. And you are in no way forgiving him for anything by imposing a life sentence.”
Baker, 43, was found a little after midnight May 28 with her throat cut in her neighbors’ yard on Kiteridge Drive in Lithia. Sheriff’s deputies found Terry, 47, not far away, with her blood on his body.
During the penalty phase, jurors learned about the man they’d convicted, and the woman he killed.
They learned of Baker’s love for children. As a teen she earned money babysitting. Her first job out of high school was in a children’s day care. She studied elementary education in college. At Cypress Creek Elementary School in Ruskin, her third graders scored so well on math exams that the district superintendent came one day to watch her teach.
She had two sons, Mason and Nicholas. She cheered them on at youth soccer games. The jury saw pictures of her holding Nicholas, and another of her and Mason posing beside a jack-o’-lantern.
Looking for real-time news alerts?
Subscribe to our free Breaking News newsletter
You’re all signed up!
Want more of our free, weekly newsletters in your inbox? Let’s get started.Explore all your options
“The unfairness of her death is unreal,” said Kelly Andrews, a friend who was the last person to talk with Baker.
Carrie Reebals, Baker’s older sister, used words like vibrant, feisty, warm, strong and stubborn to describe her. The totality of who she was seemed intangible, she said, impossible to convey. She spoke of the void her death has left in their family.
Near the end, she delivered a sentence that drew sobs from spectators, pausing after each word as if to punctuate the point: “I. Miss. My. Sister.”
The jury was told about Terry’s upbringing in Michigan. He had two brothers. He liked the woods, the water and fishing. His family described him as a shy, gregarious and inquisitive child. He was never known as a troublemaker. He made his family proud by serving four years in the U.S. Marine Corps after high school. He earned a degree in computer engineering from Western Michigan University.
The jury saw pictures of him in a graduation gown, family portraits and candid snapshots. They saw pictures of Terry with his son, Lachlan, and his daughter, Jessica. They learned about Jessica’s struggle with addiction, and her death age 19 from a drug overdose, a tragedy that devastated the family.
His mother, Kathi Terry, said she would continue to support her son in prison.
“I can’t imagine any mother or any parent just wanting their child to die,” she said, breaking into sobs. “You just can’t stop loving them.”
She was asked if she understood the pain the Baker family has endured.
“Oh, I know,” she said. “I’m just so sorry. I pray for them every day. And for Kay’s children and family and friends. I’m just sorry. I’m just so sorry.”
Terry met Baker in high school. They dated for a time and got together again as adults. She stood by him after he was convicted in 2017 of nearly killing his former girlfriend, Michelle Rogers.
The jury heard Rogers, too. From the witness stand, she showed them scars that mark her face, shoulder and arms where she’d been stabbed and bitten by Terry.
After the trial, Baker’s family and friends issued a statement thanking the jury for their service. The family was given the opportunity to speak before the sentence was handed down. Her stepmother, Kristine Empey, addressed Terry directly.
“What words did Kay say that night to justify you killing her?” she asked. “How bad could those words be? Did she say dad was right? Michelle was right? Was that what got her a death sentence? It is very unsettling as a parent to fear for your daughter because of the partner they’ve chosen. I feared for Kay’s life. Her dad feared for Kay’s life. And I don’t understand why she did not. I hope you fear for your life.”