A Cumberland County man convicted of first-degree murder of a Lake Tansi area resident has been denied a new trial, almost two years to the day of the fatal shooting.

"This is a textbook case of circumstantial evidence," Criminal Court Judge Lillie Ann Sells said before denying Howard Gailland Bruff's motion for a new trial. "There were very credible witnesses in the case. I found the Amonettes (Terry and Cheryl) to be very credible. The case was strong without the DNA evidence."

Bruff was convicted of the March 2004 murder of Kevin Shawn Hixson, 32, Lancer Dr., Lake Tansi, who was shot once in the back of the head as he leaned over a television while working on the satellite system, and then once in the head "execution style," evidence showed.

Defense attorney Tom Beesley argued that evidence failed to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Bruff was the person who killed Hixson. He argued there were no eyewitnesses to the slaying and that state witnesses who placed Bruff at the scene on the day Hixson was shot conflicted as to when the defendant had been seen.

The defense attorney attacked the state's case, stating prosecutors never established when the murder occurred outside a 48-hour period, and that no one gave positive identification of the driver of the pickup seen at the Hixson trailer.

Beesley further argued that money found in Bruff's possession came from Bruff's mother and not the victim, and that witnesses who testified about Bruff's demeanor and conduct had misinterpreted his actions.

Assistant District Attorney General Gary McKenzie countered that the state's case came together like a puzzle with each witness contributing something to the picture of events that happened on the day of the killing.

McKenzie noted that Joan Mathis had testified that Hixson told her he was waiting for someone to come to his home to help him work on his satellite system. A neighbor saw Bruff's truck arrive at the scene with a ladder in the back, saw a man she identified as Bruff place the ladder on the side of Hixson's trailer, enter the trailer, and a short time later leave in a hurry.

The pickup found parked behind the Amonette's store in Mayland was identified as belonging to Bruff. Amonette also testified that Bruff had a lot of money the day he parked his pickup behind the store, and made the comment, "the boy is dead."

The defendant's wife testified that Bruff had arrived home that day in a mad frenzy, changed clothes and hid the ladder behind her home.

The body was found lying beside the television with the TV set turned on, searching for a satellite signal.

There was also testimony that Bruff had told his mother that Hixson had been shot in the back of the head before investigators revealed that information to the media.

A major piece of evidence was the finding of trace DNA inside the victim's pocket which a state forensic scientist testified could only be matched to Bruff.

"It was as coldblooded crime as I have had since I have been with the District Attorney's Office," McKenzie argued.

Beesley has 30 days from the date of Sells' ruling to appeal denial of a new trial.

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