TAMPA — Melissa Rose Turner claimed it was self-defense when she stabbed her boyfriend to death during an alcohol-fueled fight one early morning in 2019 at their Riverview home.
From the witness stand in a Tampa courtroom Friday, she spoke through tears to describe Matthew Trussler as a man addicted, depressed, self-destructive and abusive.
“I wanted to help him,” she said. “I wanted to do what I could for him. I loved him.”
But there were inconsistencies in the accounts she gave detectives and a jury.
Found guilty of second-degree murder last month, Turner, 29, received a sentence Friday of 20 years in prison.
“The jury did not believe her claim of self-defense,” Hillsborough Circuit Judge Samantha Ward said. “Nor does this court.”
Turner phoned 911 the morning of Oct. 18, 2019, and reported that she’d found Trussler cold and unresponsive on the back patio of their home on White Barn Way in Riverview. Hillsborough sheriff’s deputies found a bloody scene. Trussler was found to have died from blood loss through stab wounds to his body.
When first questioned, Turner told investigators she did not know what happened. She later told of a violent argument, a struggle over a knife and passing out after hitting her head.
A video taken from a neighbor’s home captured footage of the darkened street adjacent to the privacy fence that enclosed Turner’s backyard. The accompanying audio captured what sounded like glass breaking, a woman shouting and screaming, and a woman uttering, “I hate you,” “Stay down” and numerous profanities.
Defense lawyer John Trevena questioned what was in the audio. At trial, he called as a witness Bruce Koenig, a former FBI director of audiovisual technology, who said the recording was generally inaudible and concluded that it could be misleading.
But the audio remained a key piece of evidence, along with a medical assessment of how Trussler died. A prosecutor noted that he lost half the blood in his body to multiple stab wounds, indicating he was alive and slowly dying for a prolonged period.
“This is not a case where the defendant is a victim of domestic violence,” said Assistant State Attorney Katherine Fand. “This is a case where Matthew Trussler is the victim of domestic violence. That’s the important thing to focus on, is that he is the victim in this case.”
The sentencing came after a three-hour hearing where Turner and others described her life and troubled upbringing. She grew up in North Carolina and Florida. She suffered abuse at the hands of a relative in early childhood. She ate compulsively, struggled with obesity and endured bullying in school.
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But she did well academically and eventually earned an associate’s degree in business. In adulthood, she lost 100 pounds. She competed in cosplay contests and worked as a webcam model.
Trussler, 25, was from Massachusetts and relocated to Florida in pursuit of a new life. He worked for his brother’s company, installing home insulation. He and Turner met through the Tinder dating app.
They eventually bought a home in Riverview and had plans to get married.
But Turner spoke of a rocky relationship, made worse by Trussler’s drinking. She would find empty bottles in her truck console. She would see him line up shot glasses and drink them back to back. Some mornings she found him heaving over a toilet. He drank so much, she said, he sometimes experienced hallucinations of a demon.
She watched him burn his skin with cigarette butts and lighters, she said. He never spoke about his problems, she said, and became upset if she tried to get him to confront them.
“It was like he was drowning and I was the only one there to offer him a hand,” she said. “I wasn’t strong enough to pull him from the water.”
But Trussler’s relatives said Turner was the troubled one. Sean Trussler saw his brother grow distant from him after he met Turner.
“This isn’t a story of a poor innocent girl,” Sean Trussler testified Friday. “This is a story of a woman who intentionally isolated and manipulated a good kid away from his loving and supportive family.”
Trussler’s mother, Margaret McLaughlin, said Turner’s claims of domestic violence caused as much pain as her son’s death.
If Turner was concerned for his well-being, she could have come to his family.
“You should have reached out to us for help,” McLaughlin told Turner in court. “You never did. If you had done so, I believe none of us would be here today.”