Kathy Taft

Death the only just sentence in Taft's murder, state says

Wake County prosecutors say state school board member Kathy Taft's 2010 rape and murder were so brutal that the death penalty is the only fitting punishment for her killer, Jason Williford, who was convicted last week of first-degree murder in the case.

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RALEIGH, N.C. — State school board member Kathy Taft's 2010 rape and murder were so brutal that the death penalty is the only fitting punishment for her killer, Wake County prosecutors told jurors Tuesday in the final phase of Jason Williford's first-degree murder trial.

"Nothing we do here is going to bring back Kathy, but this judgment and this sentence will help her family – and more importantly the community – put this heinous act behind us, knowing justice was done, that law and order did prevail and that she did not die in vain," Assistant District Attorney David Saacks said.

Williford, 32, sat in tears for part of the state's closing argument, as Saacks reminded jurors that that Williford – and no one else – is to blame for his actions.


"For all the pain that is going to be caused to him and anyone else, including his family, there is no other blame but to him and him alone," Saacks said. "The defendant has both literally and figuratively made his bed, and now he must lie in it."

In an impassioned plea to spare Williford's life, defense attorneys said mental illness – depression, sexual addiction, alcohol and drug use – contributed to Taft's attack.

"We're asking you to take into consideration his life and his mental illnesses, only so that you decide what the appropriate punishment is for Jason and that you decide whether it's absolutely necessary to extinguish him from humanity," defense attorney Ernest Conner said.

The jury deliberated for less than six hours last week before finding Williford guilty of first-degree murder and first-degree rape. It started deliberating Williford's fate around 3:15 p.m.

Taft, 62, of Greenville, was recovering from surgery in a Raleigh home, two blocks from where Williford lived, when he broke into the house in the early hours of March 6, 2010, beat her several times in the head with a rock and raped her so severely that she bled for up to five hours before she was found and continued to bruise thereafter.

"We don't know if the first blow knocked her unconscious. What we do know is that she woke up and she gasped because the defendant was in her bedroom in the middle of the night," assistant prosecutor Trish Jacobs told jurors. "Imagine that fear and what it must have been like for Kathy Taft. She knew, at that moment – however short – that she wasn't safe."

Saacks added that none of the defense's evidence outweighed the violent nature of the crime to warrant life in prison without the possibility of parole.

"You simply can't escape what the defendant did to Kathy," he said. "It's the rape that makes it worse. It is violence on top of violence. This is sexual damage, sexual injury."

But defense attorneys reminded jurors that prison life would be difficult for Williford and that he would never be a threat to society again.

"With your guilty verdict you have ensured that Jason will die in prison," his attorney, Diane Savage said. "The time and manner of Jason's death is what you decide next."

Executing Williford, attorney Michael Driver said, would only pile more violence on top of violence and cause more pain for innocent people.

"Killing Jason won't bring Kathy back. What it will do, it will leave another family without a person that they love. We know it will do that," he said. "Putting (his parents) Pam and Keith Williford through that unspeakable horror of watching their son die – how can that bring any peace to the Taft family?"

Defense attorney Ernest Conner Jr. pleaded with jurors to consider Williford's mental disorders and to use mercy when they decide.

"We are begging for your mercy. We are not asking for forgiveness," Conner said. "For what you convicted Jason of, we could not and would not ask for forgiveness. But there is a time to be better than the things we condemn."

Williford is the fourth person for whom Wake County prosecutors have sought the death penalty since 2007, when executions were effectively halted in North Carolina because of legal challenges to how they are carried out.

The last time Wake County jurors imposed the death penalty was in the case of Bryon Waring, who was convicted of first-degree murder in 2007 in the death of Lauren Redman, who was stabbed and cut more than 20 times inside her Raleigh apartment in 2005.

In 2010, prosecutors unsuccessfully sought the death penalty against Samuel James Cooper, who was convicted of killing five people in a series of murders between 2006 and 2007.

In September 2011, jurors were deadlocked 11-1 in the sentencing of Joshua Stepp, a former soldier convicted of sexually assaulting and beating to death his 10-month-old stepdaughter. He received life in prison as a result.

Mental health issues were a large part of the defense in all three of those cases.

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