DNA evidence allowed in Taft murder suspect's trial
Posted February 21, 2012
Raleigh, N.C. — A Superior Court judge on Tuesday denied a motion to throw out DNA evidence in the case against a Raleigh man accused of killing state school board member Kathy Taft nearly two years ago.
Defense attorneys for Jason Keith Williford, 32, asked Judge Paul Gessner on Monday to suppress the evidence in their client's upcoming murder trial, claiming police improperly seized a cigarette butt that Williford had discarded in an apartment parking lot.
Attorney Michael Driver said police should have obtained a search warrant before picking up the butt.
Wake County Assistant District Attorney Trish Jacobs said the apartment parking lot was a public space and that Williford discarded the cigarette butt in an area that does not require a warrant for a search.
Taft, 62, of Greenville, was recovering from surgery in a friend's home on Cartier Drive in Raleigh on March 6, 2010, when she was raped and beaten. She died three days later.
Williford, who lived less than a mile from where Taft was staying, was arrested April 16, 2010, and charged with first-degree murder and first-degree forcible rape.
If convicted, he could face the death penalty.
Defense attorneys also argued that the DNA evidence was contaminated because Raleigh police placed it in the same bag with a purple evidence glove, which is now missing, they claim, at the hands of a State Bureau of Investigation agent that was demoted.
The claim launched the defense into lambasting the state agency, saying that the SBI's crime lab can't be trusted after a recent investigation that revealed the mishandling of other cases.
Gessner was also asked to remove the Wake County District Attorney's Office from the case because of a conflict of interest involving District Attorney Colon Willoughby's wife and Taft.
The defense cited 25-30 emails on Taft's computer with the district attorney's wife, who is also a state school board member. It conceded, however, that none of the messages were of a personal nature.
Gessner denied the motion.
One motion he did grant was a request from the defense to delay the trial – originally scheduled to begin March 5 – until April 9, so that they can have more time to review evidence found on the laptop as well as a state-ordered psychiatric evaluation, which wasn't complete until last week.
Raleigh police found child pornography on Williford's computer, and attorneys say they have had technical issues with getting access to the full contents of the computer.
They say that the evidence is vital to their defense of Williford's mental state and that his psychological history is tied to what's in his computer.
Williford sat with his head down for most of the two-day hearing and rarely looked up Tuesday.
"I have been kind of shocked with that," Taft's oldest daughter, Jessica Gorall, said.
"I've had my eyes on him throughout most of this process, and I want to have eye contact with him. I want him to know, 'That was my mom that you did that to.'"