Kathy Taft

Defense: Mental illness led Kathy Taft's accused killer to attack

Posted May 16, 2012 9:29 a.m. EDT
Updated May 17, 2012 1:53 p.m. EDT

— The rape and beating of state school board member Kathy Taft was fueled by a perfect storm of drugs, alcohol, mental illness and a compulsive need for an adrenaline rush, a defense attorney for the man charged in her death told jurors Wednesday.

Taft, 62, died March 9, 2010, three days after she was raped and beaten while recovering from surgery at 2710 Cartier Drive in Raleigh.

Jason Keith Williford, 32, who lived with his wife about two blocks away, was arrested more than a month later and could face the death penalty if convicted of first-degree murder.

During an hour-long opening statement, attorney Ernest Conner Jr. told jurors that Williford was "mentally damaged" at birth, and suffered from a variety of mental disorders and illnesses his entire life – including bi-polar disorder, depression, sexual disorders, alcohol dependency, anxiety and impulse control disorder.

But no one really knew the extent of his mental illness until after his arrest.

"No one knew that Jason's life had become centered on getting drugs, getting high and getting sex – not his best friends, not his parents, not his wife, but the evidence is there, and you will see it," Conner said.

Williford, his attorney said, also had an addiction to adrenaline rushes and had a long history of breaking and entering so that he could achieve that high – a factor, Conner said, that led him to Cartier Drive in the early hours of March 6, 2010.

After a night of drinking whiskey with a friend and snorting Ritalin – a stimulant Conner likened to driving a fast car with no brakes – Williford headed out to find that adrenaline rush.

He tried breaking into two homes before arriving at 2710 Cartier Drive, Conner said. Thinking no one was home, Williford went inside and saw a light on in Taft's bedroom. After initially panicking and thinking of leaving, he
made his way to the room and when she spoke, he hit her three times with a rock, knocking her out.

"I wish there was a nice way to say it, I really do, but he rapes her," Conner said. "He had sex with her. He fractured her skull. We don't deny the awfulness of what he did."

But Williford's brain chemistry, Conner said, had been altered by drug abuse, alcoholism and hypersexual disorder, making him incapable of forming intent to commit first-degree murder.

"This case is not about a deliberate premeditated murder," he said. "It's about a person who did not have the capacity to appreciate his conduct. It's about a person who couldn't plan because of his mental illnesses and his sexual and drug and alcohol addictions. It's a case about diminished capacity, and it's a case about the consequences of untreated mental disorders."

In the state's 11-minute opening statement, however, Wake County Assistant District Attorney Trish Jacobs referred to letters Williford had written in which he talked about choices he made.

"You gave your heart and soul into raising me and did everything you could to steer me from the path I was heading down," Jacobs read from a letter to Williford's parents that police found in his home. "But for some reason, I made these choices. This evil in me I never understood and tried so hard to hide, but some things just can't be changed, I guess."

Taft, who lived in Greenville, had a facelift and breast surgery the day before her death, Jacobs said, and was staying with her sister, Dina Holton, at the home of her longtime boyfriend while he was out of town.

"She felt safe. She was in her home away from home," Jacobs said. "She thought it was like every other night she had spent in that bed. She felt safe. She was wrong."

Hours after Taft's attack, Holton found her in bed, nearly naked, her right leg hanging off the bed and pillows and covers shoved to the side.

"She was absolutely, completely exposed," Jacobs said. "There was blood everywhere."

Initially thinking Taft had complications from surgery, Taft was taken to Wake Med in Raleigh, where her plastic surgeon discovered she had been attacked.

"He hit her with something heavy. That something, along with her panties, were never found," Jacobs said of Williford.

In the days and weeks following the attack, police canvassed the Wayland Heights neighborhood and went door-to-door asking men for voluntary DNA samples.

It was Williford’s refusal to give a DNA sample that raised the suspicion of detectives, Jacobs said, and prompted them to follow him until he threw away a cigarette butt in the parking lot of his apartment complex.

The DNA matched evidence at the crime scene, and police arrested Williford on April 16, 2010, at Lake Jordan, where he had been camping with his wife and a friend.

"The manhunt was over," she said. "We had the right man."