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Star witness: Susan Lopez. Hillsborough state attorney testifies on death penalty call

Matthew Terry’s lawyers allege that Lopez’s decision to seek capital punishment was politically motivated.
Hillsborough State Attorney Susan Lopez testifies Friday in a Tampa courtroom about her decision to seek the death penalty against Matthew Terry.
Hillsborough State Attorney Susan Lopez testifies Friday in a Tampa courtroom about her decision to seek the death penalty against Matthew Terry. [ WTVT-Fox 13 ]
Published Oct. 21, 2022|Updated Oct. 21, 2022

TAMPA — Hillsborough County’s top prosecutor swore under oath Friday that her decision to seek the death penalty in a murder case a day after her controversial appointment by Florida’s governor was not motivated by politics, but by a careful assessment of the case facts and the law.

Susan S. Lopez was the star witness Friday in a Tampa courtroom. For about 45 minutes, she answered questions about why and how she decided it was appropriate to pursue capital punishment against Matthew Terry — accused in the May stabbing death of his girlfriend, Kay Baker.

The highly unusual scene, in which Lopez was questioned by a public defender and one of her own prosecutors, occurred after a judge declined to cancel a subpoena the defense issued for her testimony.

Terry’s public defenders had asked for a judge to strike down the state’s notice of intent to seek the death penalty against him, citing the circumstances that preceded Lopez’s decision.

She was appointed Aug. 4 by Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis after the governor suspended Andrew Warren, the twice-elected Democratic state attorney. The next day, Lopez reversed Warren’s decision not to seek capital punishment in Terry’s case.

Related: DeSantis asks judge to let him avoid deposition on why he ousted prosecutor

On the witness stand, Lopez sat straight, her hands in her lap, her brow furrowed. She appeared slightly uncomfortable amid an intolerably cold courtroom temperature that made lawyers and court personnel shudder. She gave mostly short responses. Her tone, at times, was testy.

She said her office’s homicide chief brought Terry’s case to her attention the afternoon after she was appointed as state attorney. She convened the office’s homicide committee the next day and viewed an 81-slide PowerPoint presentation about the case, which had been prepared by Assistant State Attorney Justin Diaz.

Lopez noted Baker’s injuries, how the woman almost was decapitated in the brutal attack. She spoke of having a responsibility to make decisions on a “case-by-case basis.”

“So it was after I reviewed Mr. Diaz’s thorough PowerPoint and a discussion with the homicide committee that I made my decision,” she said.

Matthew Terry sits in court Thursday in Tampa.
Matthew Terry sits in court Thursday in Tampa. [ WTVT-Fox 13 ]

After hearing her testimony and arguments from the attorneys, Hillsborough Circuit Judge Michael Williams declined to cancel the state’s death notice.

During arguments, Assistant Public Defender Jamie Kane complained that he was unable to ask Lopez certain questions.

He wanted to know what Lopez discussed with the governor. He also wanted to ask if she was given any assurances that she would be reappointed as a county judge or to another position if Warren is restored to office. (Lopez’s judicial seat has remained vacant since her resignation.)

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Those and other questions prompted a prosecutor’s objections, which the judge sustained.

Kane asked about a statement Lopez made about answering a call to service. He wanted to know whether she felt a sense of political devotion or deference to the governor.

“I’ve been a political servant my entire career, Mr. Kane,” Lopez said. She recounted how she went from law school to being an appellate court staff attorney to being a prosecutor to being a county judge.

“As a career public servant,” she said, “when I received a call to serve as the Hillsborough County state attorney, an office that I worked for for 17 years — I love the agency and the institution — I answered that call. And that is why I am the state attorney today.”

Cross-examination came from Assistant State Attorney Jay Pruner, the longtime homicide prosecutor who recently returned to work after a yearlong retirement.

Pruner asked Lopez if she’d received any directive from the governor or his staff about the death penalty.

“No, sir,” she said.

He asked if she received any guidance on how to evaluate Terry’s case or any political pressure on whether to seek the death penalty.

“No, sir,” she said.

Lopez said she was familiar with the decision-making process of her predecessors, Warren and former State Attorney Mark Ober, having attended numerous homicide committee meetings during their respective tenures. She said she employed the same process they did, weighing the facts and the law, and considering the opinions of other committee members before reaching a final decision.

Pruner asked her to read a news release her office put out a few days after the Aug 5 decision. It summarized the circumstances of Baker’s murder and Terry’s violent criminal history. It labeled Terry’s actions “heinous, atrocious and cruel.” The release, Lopez said, accurately conveyed her reasons for seeking the death penalty.

Kane said he was unable to make sufficient inquiries in order to illuminate a political motivation.

“The Democratic state attorney makes one decision and 24 hours later a Republican state attorney makes a different decision,” Kane said. “How is that possible unless there’s a political motivation?”

Diaz, who argued for the state, countered that Lopez’s decision was an exercise of prosecutorial discretion.

“Miss Lopez did not take the witness stand and say, ‘I took a quarter and if I flipped it heads, it’s death, if it’s tails, it’s not,’” he said.

With death still on the table, Terry remains headed for an Oct. 31 trial date.