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Crimes of the Cape Fear: Man gets death penalty after claiming ‘gay panic’ defense in brutal murder

Published: Aug. 30, 2021 at 11:27 AM EDT
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PENDER COUNTY, N.C. (WECT) - It was the first time a Pender County jury gave a defendant the death penalty in 75 years. It was also the first time now-veteran prosecutor Ben David ever saw a dead body. On February 2, 2000, the normally peaceful community of Willard in northern Pender County was shaken to its core when William “Buddy” Hall was brutally murdered inside his own home.

A chance meeting

Hall was a 71-year-old organist at his church, and a closeted homosexual. Just hours before his death, Hall had gone shopping at Walmart in the neighboring town of Wallace. He had a chance meeting there with Terrance Campbell, who was down on his luck. Campbell, recently released from prison, had just been kicked out of the house by the woman he was living with, and was effectively homeless.

After a friendly conversation, Hall offered to buy Campbell a bus ticket to Aiken, South Carolina, where he had family. Since the bus didn’t leave until the next day, Hall also said Campbell could stay with him that night. He even bought him dinner, which they ate together at Hall’s home.

After dinner, the men watched television, and later decided to watch pornography. At that point, Campbell claimed Hall made a pass at him. Campbell - who did not share Hall’s sexual orientation - said he panicked, and killed him. It’s what happened afterwards that that made investigators, and later a jury, question Campbell’s story.

“Up to no good”

The following day, employees at K-Mart in Aiken, SC, noticed a man sitting in a car in the parking lot. He’d been there for hours, just watching people. That man was Terrance Campbell. Fifteen minutes before the store closed for the night, employee Gail Wertz became so concerned Campbell was “up to no good,” she called police.

Aiken Pubic Safety Officer Tracy Saxton was first to respond, and immediately agreed something was off.

“When I saw the bottles of urine in the vehicle it indicated to me that he probably was hiding, or did not want to get out of the car for some reason or another,” Tracy Saxton Seymour recalled of the case when contacted by WECT more than 20 years after being dispatched on that call.

When Campbell couldn’t produce his drivers license, Officer Saxton searched the car. She found a wallet that belonged to Buddy Hall, and learned the car was his too. The odd circumstances prompted Officer Saxton to request a welfare check on Mr. Hall.

“And so it was on that safety check where a Pender Sheriff’s deputy, Jody Woodcock, as a matter fact, knocked on the door and then looked through the window and saw one of the most brutal crime scenes he’s ever seen,” said Pender County District Attorney Ben David. “They called back to Aiken and said, ‘Don’t let him leave. We’ve got a murder up here.’”

Pender County investigators found Hall’s body facedown on the floor. He lay underneath a velvet tapestry of the Last Supper hanging on the wall, which was now covered in Hall’s blood. A four-hour drive away, Aiken Police arrested Campbell for driving without a license. Once in custody, Campbell said he was ready to talk, and proceeded to write a 13-page confession. He told South Carolina police that he looked forward to meeting with Pender County Sheriff’s detectives so he could “clear this whole thing up.”

He said he’d killed Hall in self-defense.

Self Defense?

“If you look at the nature of Buddy’s injuries, the blow to the back of his head, we believe it was a sneak attack,” David said of the crime scene. “The fact of [Campbell’s] actions before, during, and after showed that he was there to do a robbery. We don’t believe that self-defense was the motive for this assault. It was a straight up murder. It was opportunistic. It was a way to be able to lure Buddy back into his own house to basically rob him blind and leave no witnesses.... If he truly was defending himself, why didn’t he call 911 after the case was over? Why did he have to rob the man?”

While authorities never found the murder weapon, they suspected Campbell used a meat cleaver to kill Hall. He suffered 11 blows to the head, and a medical examiner would later testify that any number of them would have incapacitated him. Hall also had defensive wounds on his arms.

Campbell’s prior convictions showed a history of violence, motivated by money. He’d spent years in prison for robbing two different banks near his hometown of Fairmont, NC. The tellers from those banks would later testify that they thought they were going to die when Campbell threatened to kill them if they did not cooperate. He’d also done time for brutally attacking his own wife when she tried to leave him, kidnapping and sexually assaulting her over the course of days.

A case ahead of its time

Despite the evidence that contradicted claims of self-defense, prosecutors worried that a jury in rural Pender County might sympathize with Campbell’s “gay panic” defense. The murder happened a decade before sexual orientation was a protected category for a hate crime.

“Back 20 years ago in Pender County, it seemed like a longshot that a jury of his peers would say that this is a case that gets maximum justice,” David recalled of the uphill battle prosecutors feared they might have getting justice for Hall. “Terrence Campbell was basically alleging that Buddy Hall was worth killing. He was saying that he was beneath the law’s protection. The jury completely disagreed. They not only convicted Terrence Campbell of first-degree premeditated murder and felony murder, but after a lengthy sentencing hearing, voted for the death penalty, the only death penalty in Pender County in 75 years.”

Decades later, the now retired Officer Saxton remembers her work arresting Campbell as one of the highlights of her career.

“It’s a pretty big deal to me. I mean, I was still in what I would consider to be my rookie phase, just learning the ropes... I hadn’t been on the road by myself for a long period of time, you know, and this was by far one of the biggest cases I had had at that time. And the fact that I was able to solve a murder before anyone even knew a murder occurred, it was pretty significant to me,” Tracy Saxton Seymour reflected. “In this case, I think that the family of the victim would probably be appreciative of the fact that I went that extra mile to make sure that everything was OK.”

Campbell remains on North Carolina’s Death Row. WECT attempted to interview him for this story, but due to staffing shortages, the state is not allowing on-camera interviews at this time.

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