Raleigh, N.C. — A defense attorney for a Raleigh man convicted of killing state school board member Kathy Taft says his client's capital murder trial was unnecessary because Wake County's district attorney rejected a plea deal that would have put him in prison for the rest of his life.
"In my opinion, it was absolutely a waste of time and money," said Ernest Conner Jr., one of three attorneys who represented Jason Keith Williford, who was found guilty June 1 of first-degree murder and first-degree rape in Taft's March 2010 death.
The nine-week trial – from jury selection to sentencing – cost taxpayers $767,089.24 in defense attorneys' fees, travel expenses and administrative costs, according to records filed with the Wake County Clerk of Superior Court. That figure does not include expert witnesses or other costs associated with the trial.
In the end, a jury recommended a sentence of life in prison for Williford – the same offer that, Conner says, he proposed to District Attorney Colon Willoughby as early as 2010.
DNA evidence linked the 32-year-old to the crime, and "it was very clear he was guilty – and he wasn't denying that," Conner said. "All we wanted to do was avoid the death sentence."
But Willoughby says he felt strongly that the death penalty should have been considered in the crime, even though Taft's family would have been satisfied with a life sentence.
"She was randomly selected for violence. She was brutally raped, and then, she was murdered," he said. "I felt like that's a horrible case."
Taft, 62, was from Greenville but had been recovering from surgery at a friend's home in Raleigh when Williford broke in, beat her in the head repeatedly with a heavy object and raped her.
Prosecutors described the injuries as being so severe that she bled for up to five hours before she was found and continued to bruise thereafter.
She died three days later.
"This case is one of a few cases I thought was so heinous that a community – a jury – ought to make decisions of whether the death penalty was appropriate or not," he said.
Willoughby says Williford could have pleaded guilty and let a jury decide the sentence – a move that would have spared the cost of a trial.
According to court records and Conner, nearly a third of the cost of the trial was associated with a third attorney joining the defense team so that the case would be ready to go to trial.
"What surprised me was … why we wasted tremendous amounts of money on the defense, when the very first thing they did was tell the jury he did it," Willoughby said.
But Conner says his team still would have had to research and prepare experts to support their case that a number of mental disorders contributed to Williford attacking Taft.
Conner also says that he believes race was a factor in the district attorney's decision to pursue the death penalty. He says Willoughby told him that he "had to seek the death penalty in this case with a white upper-middle-class family in order to seek it in cases involving poor black kids from the projects."
"I made an independent memo of it, because it was so shocking to me that he said it," Conner said. "There were a lot of other things that could've been factors, but one of them clearly was race, and I was offended by race being a factor in any way, shape or form."
But Willoughby denies race playing a factor in his decision.
"That's not true. What I told them was that we try to do things evenly across the board," he said. "I said, 'How can I justify trying one person if I don't apply the same standards to everyone?' Not, 'We have to try someone on a quota system, so we can try somebody black.' That's silly."