TAMPA, Fla. — Legal experts say a Hillsborough jury’s decision to sentence Matthew Terry to life in prison this week rather than death might have headed off a complicated appeal.
Terry was convicted on Monday of killing his girlfriend, Lithia teacher Kay Baker.
Suspended Hillsborough State Attorney Andrew Warren originally said his office would not seek the death penalty. But that changed when Gov. DeSantis appointed Interim State Attorney Susan Lopez, who said prosecutors would.
The still unresolved political battle is impacting not just this case, but others.
The same jury that found Terry guilty recommended a sentence of life in prison.
But what if they had recommended death?
“Certain deals may have been place that are now not being offered,” said defense attorney A.J. Alvarez, who was not associated with the Terry trial.
Alvarez says this and several other cases, including at least one of his own, have been impacted and changed by the still unanswered political question created by Gov. Ron DeSantis when he suspended Warren.
“I have a case right now that there was a recommendation not to file and once the change took place, they ended up filing charges,” he said.
Terry’s trial was moved along quickly with an understanding that the death penalty was off the table. Then, Lopez said it wasn’t.
The jury’s recommendation — life rather than death — might have headed off a potential avenue for appeal.
“You know, I think it worked out because the state attorney can say 'I sought the death penalty. The jury didn’t go in my favor,'" Alvarez said. “And the defense at the same time can say, 'Well, we got the defendant life and spared him the death penalty.'"
“The victim’s family wanted to see him convicted and that’s what we were able to deliver,” Warren said during a news conference Friday. “And that’s the right outcome.”
Warren also addressed the policy concerns being raised — even as his own trial against Gov. DeSantis is now less than two weeks away.
“And that shouldn’t be lost on anyone that, you know, this political upheaval and the governor’s actions have thrown a wrench into their work,” Warren said of employees in the State Attorney’s office and others involved in the judicial process.
For now, Warren says he’s concentrating almost exclusively on getting his job back as the duly elected State Attorney of Hillsborough County.
If that happens, he did not rule out the possibility of reviewing cases that may have been handled differently in his absence.
“There are a lot of things that I will need to address when I am reinstated,” he said. “But we haven’t gotten to that point yet. And when I’m back in office, we'll start, we'll continue doing the great work that we were doing to keep Hillsborough safe.”
If it doesn’t happen, asked whether he might run for state attorney again in 2024, Warren said he’s focused on the trial in two weeks, not what might happen in two years.