Hillsborough County Man Found Guilty in Girlfriend Stabbing Case

November 19, 2022 Criminal Defense, News & Announcements, Violent Crimes

We previously covered the murder trial for Matthew Terry, who was accused of stabbing his girlfriend to death last year in Hillsborough County. The trial just came to an end, as the jury came to a unanimous decision in declaring the defendant guilty of first-degree murder.

Prosecutors cannot normally rely on a defendant’s prior convictions to determine if they are guilty of a current charge. However, prosecutors can sometimes get around this if the evidence is being introduced for other reasons.

This article will provide the latest details from the trial, along with an explanation of how the State can introduce a defendant’s prior criminal history.

What was the Case?

In May 2022, police found the body of Kay Baker, 43, outside of a neighbor’s home in Lithia. Baker’s then-boyfriend Matthew Terry, 47, is accused of stabbing her to death after getting into a heated argument at the Landing Bar & Grill.

Neighbors claimed to have heard screaming early the next morning. Once the police were called, they found Baker dead outside on the lawn.

Authorities found Baker’s body with cuts along her neck and noted that there was a knife missing from the butcher block in the kitchen. During the investigation, a trail of blood led police to Terry, who had been hiding behind overgrown bushes nearby. Terry had lacerations on his hands and fingers, along with superficial cuts on his arm.

Terry’s defense team argued that their client was acting in self-defense. However, one of Terry’s ex-girlfriends, Michelle Rogers, came forward to report a violent incident she experienced with the defendant back when he lived in Michigan.

According to Rogers, the two got into an argument in 2017 which resulted in her spending five days in an intensive care unit. Rogers claimed that Terry beat, bit, and stabbed her several times during their argument.

Although Terry was charged with attempted murder, he was only convicted of assault with the intent to cause great bodily harm. The defendant only served three years, when he then moved to Florida to be with Baker.

In a letter to the Parole Board of Michigan, Rogers pleaded for Terry to remain behind bars. “Society is in danger,” Rogers said.

Baker was a mother of two and an elementary school teacher. One of Baker’s friends and former neighbor said she had a heart like no other. “She loved her boys and she also loved her students…She lit up a room and she was always there to make you smile,” said Brandi Haggstrom.

Terry was charged with first-degree murder for Baker’s death.

State Attorney’s Suspension Gains Attention

This particular case gained attention due to then State Attorney, Andrew Warren. The Hillsborough County State Attorney was suspended in August 2022 after Governor Ron DeSantis announced he was issuing an executive order for suspension.

Reasons for the suspension revolved around Warren claiming that he wouldn’t prosecute anyone who provided or sought out an abortion after Roe v. Wade was overturned. In addition, Warren stated that he would not seek the death penalty in Terry’s case.

After DeSantis suspended Warren, interim State Attorney Susan Lopez took over the case. Lopez ensured that the new prosecution would seek the death penalty in the murder trial.

Opening Statements

The prosecution used the opening statements to describe the more gruesome details of the murder. Prosecutor Justin Diaz included the 911 call from the neighbors, which allegedly caused Terry to tear up.

“Kay Baker was fighting for her life,” said prosecutor Diaz. “She’s getting injured on her hands, front, neck, and back.”

Despite never finding the murder weapon, prosecutors pointed to the DNA and physical evidence that pointed to Terry as the killer. “She’s been stabbed multiple times. She’s been cut multiple times,” Diaz said. “It has severed her carotid artery, her jugular vein, and her voice box.”

Terry’s defense attorney, Jennifer Spradley, claimed that the state’s case was circumstantial. “What it means, is that there’s going to be pieces to the puzzle that the state is going to at the end, and as Mr. Diaz just did, try to paint a picture with those pieces,” Spradley said. “But you are to listen to all of those pieces critically and determine for yourselves what they mean.”

After opening statements, testimonies began from the neighbors who found Baker, along with the deputies who first arrived at the scene. “At the end of this trial, one answer will emerge as the clear and obvious answer,” said Diaz.

Jury’s Unanimous Decision

Although the trial was predicted to last several weeks, it only took five days before the jury came to a decision. Both the State and defense rested their cases Tuesday, calling no further witnesses to the stand.

One of the last witnesses to give testimony was Terry’s ex-girlfriend, Michelle Rogers. Rogers testified that Terry attacked her in 2017 in a way that was eerily similar to the current allegations against him.

“I was really disoriented and dizzy,” said Rogers. “And I was hearing all this shuffling in the kitchen. And then the next thing you know Mr. Terry comes around behind me and stabs me in the neck.”

Terry had originally requested to testify on his own behalf but decided otherwise after receiving advice from his lawyers. The defense claimed that there was a third person that night who attempted to attack both Terry and Baker.

“Matt did have Kay’s blood on his hands. He did touch the wall where you saw… Because he got attacked. And he was bleeding too,” said defense attorney Donna Perry. “[He] did stumble into the fence you saw…Kay’s blood was on his hands from him trying to help her and then when he got attacked was bleeding…his blood was on his hands too.”

The prosecution argued that there was never a third person involved, but that it was Terry who was at fault. “He did not either get chased by the phantom attacker or chase down the phantom attacker as if it’s some narrative that he is the brave hero,” said prosecutor Diaz. “Matthew Terry killed Baker. He ran from the scene.”

Jury deliberations began around 3 pm on Tuesday after the final arguments. It only took a few hours for the jury to announce their decision. On November 15th, 2022, the Hillsborough County jury announced that they unanimously found Terry guilty of first-degree murder in the stabbing of his late girlfriend.

The case will now move on to the penalty phase.

Introducing Evidence of Prior Convictions

Evidence of prior bad acts or collateral crimes is usually not admissible if it violates an evidentiary rule. Prosecutors can’t introduce evidence of a defendant’s prior convictions to prove they are guilty or to show they tend to commit crimes.

However, prosecutors can sometimes use their prior criminal history to discredit the defendant’s testimony and show whether they are being truthful or credible.

This does not mean that any evidence of a crime can come in to impeach a defendant who is testifying. Under Fla. Stat. Section 90.610 the crime must be either a felony or an offense involving dishonesty, like Fraud. The prosecutor can’t normally ask the defendant questions regarding charges that are still pending or those that didn’t result in a conviction.

To make things more complicated, this doctrine is sometimes barred unless the defendant offers up their own testimony that establishes their credibility. If the defendant opens the door to this issue, then the State can try to bring up to the jury evidence that shows their prior convictions.

This can include even some of the convictions that are currently pending or those that didn’t result in a conviction.

Balancing Test

Under Florida Statute Sections 90.401 and 90.402 evidence that helps prove or disprove of material facts is often relevant and admissible. However, relevancy is not the only test for whether evidence should be admitted.

Under Fla. Stat. § 90.403, even if the objected-to evidence is relevant, it may still be inadmissible if “the probative value is substantially outweighed by the danger of unfair prejudice, confusion of issues, misleading the jury, or needless presentation of cumulative evidence.”

Basically, Judges employ what is known as a balancing test when determining whether to allow the introduction of prior convictions into evidence. Judges balance the value that this evidence will bring to the jury against the potential prejudice that it would cause the defendant.

This is because evidence showing that the defendant was convicted of a prior conviction carries with it the substantial probability that the jury will think that the defendant has the propensity to commit crimes or that they are a bad person.

Defending Against the State’s Introduction of Prior Bad Acts

While the issue of introducing evidence is not for the weak-hearted, having a basic understanding of how the system works can help in your search for a skilled Defense Attorney. Having the right knowledge can help give you the tools necessary to know if the person you are entrusting such a monumental decision is capable of effectively defending you or a loved one.

Before a trial even starts, a skilled attorney will fight tooth and nail to ensure that prejudicial evidence is never allowed in the courtroom. The following list does not include every step in preparing a defense against the introduction of prior criminal history but is a useful start in understanding the process:

  • Motions in Limine
    • A Motion in Limine is a type of request for the court to rule on the admissibility of a specific piece of evidence.
    • These rulings needed to be done before the trial begins.
    • If an issue that was addressed in the Motion in Limine is brought up during trial the attorney must address it right away and object by citing the Motion in Limine
  • Pretrial Stipulation
    • Similar to a Motion in Limine, lawyers need to address issues or subjects that are not being addressed during the criminal trial.
    • A stipulation limits the issues to be tried by binding the parties to not bring up issues not included.
  • Objecting During Trial
    • Even if the judge grants the above limitations, these can be waived if an attorney does not quickly bring up specific objections during trial.
    • Not to mention that some objections need to be renewed as the trial progresses.
  • Asking for a Mistrial
    • In some extreme circumstances, evidence that is so prejudicial comes up during a trial that cannot be erased from the jury’s mind. When this type of prejudice occurs, the trial becomes so unreliable that the only solution is to start over with a fresh trial.

Finding a Defense Attorney in Tallahassee, Florida

If you or someone you love has been accused of a crime, it is highly important to seek out legal help. Criminal convictions can lead to harsh consequences, including expensive fines and imprisonment. Working with Florida criminal defense lawyer can help ease your mind by building a strong defense for your case. Don Pumphrey and his team at Pumphrey Law Firm have experience representing clients across the state for various charges. Contact us today for a free consultation at (850) 681-7777 or leave an online message on our website.

Written by Karissa Key

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