Raleigh, N.C. — A Wake County jury deliberated for more than five hours before recommending a life prison sentence Thursday for Jason Williford in the rape and beating death of North Carolina state school board member Kathy Taft two years ago.
Williford, 32, who was found guilty Friday of first-degree rape and first-degree murder in the March 6, 2010, attack, sat with his head bowed and had no visible response as Superior Court Judge Paul Gessner read the decision.
Williford cried as Taft's four grown children spoke to him about the pain their family has endured over the past two years and how their lives have changed.
Taft died March 9, 2010, three days after Williford broke into the Raleigh home where she was sleeping, beat her several times in the head with a heavy object and brutally raped her.
"Jason, I don't know why you can't look up here," Taft's oldest daughter, Jessica Gorall, tearfully told Williford from the witness stand as she spoke about her loss.
"You took away my mom, my dearest friend, my mentor. When you murdered and raped her, you killed something within me, and I will never be the same. I miss her so much."
Paige Fuqua said the moment she realized that her life had changed forever was when she stepped off the elevator at the hospital and saw her youngest brother doubled over and sobbing with his head in his hands at their mother's bedside.
"You took away our mother and our home," she told Williford. "The reality is that we still need our mom. We still need her to be proud of us and reassure us that tough times are part of life and that everything will be OK. We were not ready. We were not finished loving her."
Thomas Taft got married six weeks ago and said it was excruciating to him that his mother wasn't there to share in his joy.
"My wife will never have a mother-in-law to talk to and to be able to have things explained to her as to why I am the person that I am, because nobody in the world knew it better than she did."
"We're ready to get past this," he added. "We're ready to let it go. In my heart, the forgiveness has already started. Every part about this has been a nightmare and this is the end of it."
Jonathan Taft was his mother's baby boy. He lost a role model who taught him strong morals and challenged him to do what was right and to treat others the way he wanted to be treated.
"As much anger and hatred that I have in my heart for you and for what you did to my mother, I think it would be dishonorable to her to verbally attack you," he told Williford.
"I will say, instead, that if you had been so lucky as to have met her under different circumstances, there's no doubt in my mind that she would have left the same positive impact on you as she did on everyone else she met."
Williford's parents only said Thursday that "today belongs to the Taft family," and that they were praying for them.
Raised in Kinston, Taft graduated cum laude from East Carolina University with a Bachelor of Science degree in education. She worked for many years as a public health educator in both Raleigh and Greenville, helped found Communities in Schools in Pitt County and spent five years on the local school board.
In 1995, then-Gov. Jim Hunt appointed her to the State Board of Education, where she served for 15 years.
Friends and colleagues said she was a visionary leader and a tireless advocate for public education who championed many causes.
"I know Kathy would want to be remembered for how she lived her life and contributed to public education on a statewide basis and in her community," North Carolina Superintendent of Public Instruction June Atkinson said Thursday afternoon. "All of us who know and care about Kathy are glad that this tragedy has come to a conclusion."
"Our memories of Kathy are of how she lived her life and the positive impact she had on so many," state school board Chairman Bill Harrison said. "She was an outstanding state board of education member."
Defense attorneys argued that a variety of mental disorders – including alcohol dependency, depression and impulse control disorder – combined with a night of drinking and prescription drug abuse factored into Williford’s behavior on the night of the attack.
Williford was unable to plan and fully realize the consequences of his actions when he attacked Taft, defense attorneys argued. Prosecutors never denied Williford suffered from mental disorders but said his actions were calculated.
After 10 days of testimony and more than five hours of deliberation, they found him guilty of first-degree murder under what's known as the theory of malice, premeditation and deliberation – meaning they found that he intended to attack and kill Taft.
He was also found guilty under the state's first-degree felony murder rule in perpetration of rape.
It was the heinous nature of the rape – violence on top of violence, prosecutors argued – that led to them seeking the ultimate punishment for murder.
But jurors disagreed that the crime warranted death.
Williford would have been the first person this year sentenced to death and would have been the 157th inmate on death row.
North Carolina has not executed an inmate since Aug. 18, 2006, when Samuel R. Flippen was put to death by lethal injection for the beating death of his 2-year-old stepdaughter in Forsyth County.
Juries have sentenced 14 people to death since then, but a complex and evolving set of legal challenges have imposed a de facto moratorium on the state carrying out executions.
The 2009 Racial Justice Act allows death row prisoners to use statistical evidence of discrimination to appeal their sentence. Prisoner appeals also have questioned whether the state's execution method is cruel and unusual or their crimes were investigated fairly.
Even those who say the death penalty is needed have doubts about when it might be enforced again.
"We're in a place where people still like the idea of having the death penalty, but in fact, we don't really want to carry out the death penalty," said Tye Hunter with the Death Penalty Litigation Center.