December Morning

It was late, and Gary was worried.

The pre-dawn hours in central Florida are typically a peaceful prelude to just the kind of mild days the state has become known for. It was the first Friday in December, and the temperatures were in the upper fifties. But Gary noticed little of this as he scanned the roads outside of Tampa along the well-traveled path his girlfriend Teri typically took from his home to her own.

Teri started out on her journey several hours earlier at around 2 A.M. after unwinding with Gary at the home he shared with his parents in Tampa. She frequently passed the hours with Gary after leaving her bank job at 11 P.M. and before making the 30-mile trip to her parents’ home in Pasco County. And, just to be on the safe side, Teri usually called Gary to notify him of her safe arrival at home.

However, the call did not come this night, and a call made by Gary to Teri’s mother revealed that Teri failed to arrive home at all after leaving Gary’s home. Fearing the worst, Gary set out along the route he knew her to take, scanning the rural roadways for any trace of Teri or her red Honda.

The majority of Gary’s trip was uneventful and, by the time the Sun had begun to peak over the horizon, he’d seen no sign of Teri. As he was nearing Teri’s home and the end of his search, a red Honda parked in a post office parking lot caught his eye. Lights on, door open, mail lying all about – a struggle had occurred here. Gary immediately investigated, fearing he had found exactly what he was looking for.

Cold confirmation shot through him when he picked up a letter on the pavement in the car’s shadow. Leaping off the white envelope was her name: Teri Matthews.

Matthews’ body was discovered hours later, wrapped in a hospital sheet in a remote part of the county. Investigators processed her body and the scenes of the kidnapping and the area in which her body was found. Evidence collected, witnesses interviewed, leads pursued, all the available pieces of the puzzle assembled, but they were not enough to form a picture, and the case soon became cold.

A man would pay the penalty for Matthews’ murder three decades later, condemned to a sterile death by the testimony of an ex-wife compensated by reward money, a half brother with a handful of conflicting stories, an FBI agent strongly suspected of tampering with evidence in scores of murder trials, and a confessor to the slaying silenced by death. And, despite succumbing to the ultimate penalty, a team of tireless defenders continues even now to push back against the system that committed such grave and grievous errors.

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