David Terry, lawyer, judge, politician, and soldier, the son of Joseph R. and Sarah D. (Smith) Terry, was born in Kentucky on March 8, 1823, and moved to Texas as a young boy. He was a younger brother of Benjamin Franklin Terry. Although he achieved fame in California, Terry considered himself a Texan and a southerner and maintained Texas contacts with family and friends throughout his lifetime. He studied law in the office of his uncle-in-law, T. J. B. Hadley, and in 1845 was admitted to the bar at Galveston. He served in Capt. Samuel L. S. Ballowe's company in the Col. John C. Hays's First Regiment of Texas Mounted Riflemen in the Mexican War and participated in the battle of Monterrey in 1846. In 1847 he lost the election for district attorney of Galveston. In 1849 he joined the gold rush to California, where he failed as a gold miner but achieved rapid financial and political success in law practice at Stockton. In Galveston in 1852 Terry married Cornelia Runnels, the niece of Hardin R. Runnels, later governor of Texas. The couple had six children.
In 1855 Terry was nominated for a place on the California Supreme Court by the American (Know-Nothing) party and surprisingly won over the Democrats. A few months after he took office, he became involved in an altercation with members of the Vigilance Committee, an organization of citizens formed to fight crime and corruption in San Francisco, which Terry saw as an extralegal body that flouted law and order. When the vigilantes attempted to "arrest" two members of an opposition group that included Terry, the judge stabbed their leader through the neck with a Bowie knife, his favorite weapon. Terry was imprisoned, but his victim survived, and the judge was released. In 1859 Terry, now California chief justice, was again involved in a dramatic public controversy when he killed United States Senator David C. Broderick in California's most famous duel. Broderick represented the northern or antislavery faction of the California Democratic party, and Terry was a leader in the southern faction. Broderick's death made him a martyr and hero to northern antislavery sympathizers. Judge Terry afterwards faced public contempt that ruined his political future. He resumed law practice, and in 1863 he returned to Texas to join the Confederate Army. He was wounded slightly at Chickamauga and then raised a regiment in Texas; at the end of the war he was a colonel. Subsequently, like many former Confederates, Terry lived for a time in Mexico, where he engaged in farming and ranching. He returned to Stockton, California, in 1868 to practice law again. In 1878–79 he served as a prominent member of the California Constitutional Convention, which rewrote the 1849 state constitution.
In 1884 Terry became involved in a long case that attracted wide attention. He represented Sarah Althea Hill, who claimed she was secretly married to William Sharon, a multimillionaire and former senator from Nevada. She sought to validate the marriage, obtain a divorce, and share in the community property. Terry's wife died in December 1884, and his only surviving son, Samuel, died in April 1885. In January 1886 Terry, almost sixty-three years old and a widower, married Sarah Hill, who was twenty-five years younger than he. During a courtroom hearing concerning her case, the new Mrs. Terry caused a scene by loudly declaring that the circuit judge, Stephen J. Field, a justice of the United States Supreme Court, had been "bought" by the opposition. In the ensuing commotion as the marshal attempted to remove her, Terry scuffled with deputies inside and outside the courtroom. Field, who had long differed with Terry on moral and political issues, sentenced Terry to six months in jail for contempt of court. On August 14, 1889, Terry and his wife had a chance encounter with Justice Field and his bodyguard in a railroad station restaurant at Lathrop, California. The unarmed Terry slapped Field twice and was instantly shot to death by the bodyguard, David Neagle. Terry was buried next to his first wife in the family plot at the Rural Cemetery in Stockton. Mrs. Terry was admitted to the Stockton State Hospital for the Insane in 1892, died there in 1937, and was also buried in the Terry family plot.