Raleigh, N.C. — Jason Williford’s attorneys argued Thursday that Wake County prosecutors failed to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that he intentionally killed state school board member Kathy Taft two years ago.
Williford, 32, is charged with first-degree murder, first-degree rape and first-degree burglary in the March 6, 2010, attack of the 62-year-old Taft, who was recovering from cosmetic surgery and asleep when she was beaten in the head and sexually assaulted. She died three days later.
His attorneys, seeking to spare him from the death penalty that would accompany a conviction on first-degree murder, have said Williford committed the crimes, but he was high and did not have the mental capacity to plan them.
Williford, who lived with his wife less than two blocks away from 2710 Cartier Drive, where Taft was staying, was arrested after DNA on Taft's bed sheet linked him to the attack.
Defense attorneys told jurors Thursday that Williford was an alcoholic who struggled with depression, bi-polar disorder and sex addiction, abused both prescription and illegal drugs and led a secret life involving prostitutes, cross-dressing and anonymous sex with men and women he met on the Internet.
They never denied that Williford was responsible for Taft's death but said it constitutes second-degree murder, not first-degree, because he could not have realized the consequences of his actions.
"The waves of alcohol addiction, drug addiction, sex addiction combined with the mental illnesses, coupled with all the stresses he was under, overcome him at the same time," attorney Diane Savage told jurors in the first of three closing arguments for the defense.
She said numerous efforts to get help for Williford failed and the extent of his issues was never fully known.
In the hours before he attacked Taft, Williford had been drinking, abusing Ritalin and arguing with his wife. His attorneys said he had been looking for an adrenaline rush when he broke into the Cartier residence and had no intention of raping Taft because he did not know anyone was home.
The attack occurred, because he was unable to control his impulses. Williford struck her three times with a rock he had been carrying to break into homes and then raped her.
"Alcoholism, bipolar disorder, and other mental illnesses never give you a free pass," Savage said. "We're just trying to explain why this happened – and before finding someone guilty of a specific crime, isn't it important to understand the why?"
Wake County Assistant District Attorney David Saacks, in his closing argument, said there was no denying that Williford had mental issues but that it's the degree of those issues that's in question.
"He's calculated, cognizant and cold, and it's those actions and that personality disorder that led to Kathy's demise," Saacks said. "He knew exactly what he was doing."
That constitutes first-degree murder, he said, and that's what the evidences shows.
"He took Kathy's life, and he took her dignity and he did it all for his own pleasure," Saacks said. "That's why we're here."
Jurors spent about two hours deliberating Thursday afternoon. They viewed photos of the crime scene and watched a video of Taft's sister describing how she heard footsteps in the house and discovered her sister.
They are considering a second-degree murder verdict and a not guilty verdict on the murder charge, as well as verdicts of first-degree burglary non-felonious breaking and entering or not guilty on the burglary charge and guilty or not guilty on the first-degree rape charge.
A first-degree murder conviction would mean jurors would also decide on a life or death sentence.
But defense attorneys asked jurors to fault Williford only for the crimes he committed and not the ones he's charged with.
A second-degree murder conviction, attorney Ernest Conner Jr. said, coupled with a first-degree rape conviction would put Williford in jail for at least 50 years.
"He will remain a mentally ill person. Society will be safe. He will not get out of prison until he's too old to be any harm to anybody," Conner said. "If you're compelled to find him guilty of anything, find him guilty of what he's guilty of and no more."