TAMPA — It was after midnight when neighbors on a long, closely packed row of houses called Kiteridge Drive in Lithia heard what they described as a thump and a female voice gasping or crying. It was loud enough to wake them.
When Jonathan and Ruth Figgins came outside, they saw what they first thought was a teenager passed out near the home next door. When they moved closer, they saw blood, and a gaping wound across the woman’s neck.
“I don’t see them breathing,” Ruth Figgins said in a 911 call. “I don’t think they’re with us.”
The trial of Matthew Terry opened Monday with a prosecutor recreating, in words and audio recordings, the lurid scene that Kay Baker’s neighbors found that early morning when they emerged from their homes.
Baker, 43, a third grade math and science teacher at Cypress Creek Elementary School in Ruskin, died that early morning, May 28. Prosecutors say it was Terry, her boyfriend, who cut her throat.
In an opening statement, Assistant State Attorney Justin Diaz described how Hillsborough sheriff’s deputies followed a trail of blood from where Baker lay dead through a backyard and along a wooded strip to a patch of high brush. They found Terry there, lying on his back, wearing only a shirt and undershorts. He had blood on him.
The trial, coming a mere five months after the killing, arrived before the jury at a remarkable clip. Terry did not waive his right to a speedy trial, as is typical in most serious criminal cases, forcing state prosecutors to prove their case within a tight timeline. Lawyers spent all of last week selecting people to serve on the jury.
The case is also unusual for the political machinations surrounding it.
Terry’s was the first case in which the appointed Hillsborough State Attorney, Susan Lopez, declared an intent to seek the death penalty if a jury returns a guilty verdict. It was a decision she made a little more than 24 hours after Gov. Ron DeSantis selected her to replace Andrew Warren, the county’s twice-elected prosecutor. Warren had previously decided against seeking capital punishment for Terry.
But none of that was mentioned in court Monday. Nor was there discussion of Terry’s past: He served prison time in Michigan after he was convicted of stabbing and nearly killing another girlfriend. A judge has not ruled on whether the jury can hear details about that case before they decide whether Terry is guilty. If he’s convicted as charged, the earlier case will likely become a focus of the sentencing phase, in which the jury will be asked to consider capital punishment.
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For now, the focus is on Baker and what she experienced in the last few hours before she died. The trial, including a possible sentencing phase, is set to last through next week.
The evening before she died, the prosecutor said, Terry and Baker were with friends at a nearby restaurant called The Landing Bar and Grill. Amid drinks and bites of food, Baker got up to use the restroom.
On her way back, Baker passed one of her friends. Video from the restaurant recorded the pair playfully dancing, Diaz said. A man they didn’t know, who happened to be walking by, threw his hands up and shimmied past them.
The encounter lasted a few seconds. Terry saw it, Diaz said. He accused Baker of dancing with the other man. Baker tried to calm him down, Diaz said. But Terry was upset.
One of her friends also tried to defuse the situation, Diaz said, telling Terry that Baker loved him, and that he must love her, too, because he was jealous.
His reply, according to Diaz: “I’m not jealous. I have nothing to be jealous about.”
The tension lingered 90 minutes later as the couple drove to Baker’s home. She phoned one of her friends from a car.
“Please tell him I wasn’t dancing with another man,” Baker said. In the background, her friend heard her tell Terry to “quit being stupid.”
After the call, she sent a text message: lol. sorry for that. so dumb. all good now.
The text came at 11:56 p.m. About 30 minutes later, Baker lay in her neighbor’s yard, bleeding to death.
When deputies arrived at Baker’s house, they found her front door ajar. The jury saw the deputies’ body camera videos, showing them moving inside, guns drawn, searching each room.
A bedroom, where one of Baker’s two sons stayed, had been locked from inside. The door frame to a nearby bathroom was splintered and cracked. In the bedroom, a window was open, the blinds pulled up. The screen was pushed out.
A paring knife, with a blade about 3 inches long, was missing from the kitchen. Investigators couldn’t find it.
When deputies found Terry in the bushes, he was bleeding from his neck. Diaz said Terry would acknowledge that he’d tried to take his own life.
Assistant Public Defender Jennifer Spradley urged the jury to scrutinize the state’s evidence, to question what was searched, what was found and what wasn’t found. She offered little hint of what approach the defense might take to counter the state’s case.
As neighbors began recounting their memories of the scene, they said they didn’t recognize Baker when they saw her.
Ruth Figgins realized later she’d spoken with her once, about two weeks earlier. But standing in the darkness, on the phone with a 911 operator, she struggled to explain the unfathomable.
“We don’t know who this person is,” she said in the recording. “My husband heard someone screaming and then we came outside ...
“They have a major wound to their neck and they’re struggling to breathe ...
“We don’t see anyone...”