Kathy Taft

Defense offers another side to Jason Williford

Defense attorneys called family members and friends of Jason Williford to testify on his behalf Monday in an effort to keep him off death row for the March 2010 rape and murder of state school board member Kathy Taft.

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RALEIGH, N.C. — The Wake County jury that has spent weeks hearing about Jason Williford's numerous mental disorders, sexual predilections and how he brutally raped and attacked state school board member Kathy Taft got a contrasting look Monday at the 32-year-old as family members and friends took the witness stand in an effort to keep him off North Carolina's death row.

After less than six hours of deliberation, jurors found Williford guilty Friday of first-degree murder and first-degree rape in Taft's March 2010 death. They must now decide whether he should spend his life in prison without the possibility of parole or face the death penalty.

Taft, 62 and a mother of four from Greenville, was recovering from surgery in March 2010 when Williford broke into the Raleigh home where she was staying and fatally attacked her.

Prosecutors have argued that he knowingly and purposefully committed the crime, while defense attorneys contend that alcohol, drugs and depression fueled the attack and that a variety of mental issues left him without the mental capacity to understand the consequences of his actions.

Throughout the first phase of his trial, Williford kept his head bowed and looked down except for when he addressed the judge. But his demeanor Monday was noticeably different.

He held his head up and, at times, smiled and cried, as his father showed jurors childhood photos and shared memories of a toddler who loved to feed ducks at the park, a teen who was passionate about comic books, fantasy figurines and tropical fish and a man who is a talented and gifted musician, songwriter and artist.

Jurors heard a song, "How Do We Know?" that Williford had penned and performed. They saw artwork from his childhood and origami and family portraits he had drawn after his arrest.

"I've loved Jason unconditionally," Williford's father, Keith Williford said. "I'll never quit loving him."

Prosecutors opted not to call any of Taft's family or friends to testify at the hearing.

Instead, they chose only an ex-girlfriend who testified that Jason Williford physically and sexually assaulted her on several occasions during a three-year relationship that ended in early 2005.

Often, the woman said, it happened when he had been drinking and after arguments or disagreements. WRAL News is not identifying the woman because of her claims of sexual violence.

On one occasion, she said, Williford attacked her in a hospital after she had given birth to her son when she confronted him about his drinking.

He threw her into the door, pulled her to the floor, pulled her hair, kicked her, threw flowers on her and spat on her, the woman said.

After that, she said, she didn't fight back.

"I had learned better than to fight back," she said. "It would just make it worse."

"How would it make it worse if you fought back?" Wake County Assistant District Attorney David Saacks asked.

"He would be more aggressive," the woman said.

But Williford wasn't always that way, his father testified. Early in life, Williford was close to his parents and sister and expressed his love for them.

The family dynamic changed during his adolescent years when Williford got involved with the wrong crowd, started drinking, doing drugs and eventually dropped out of high school.

"He just kept getting further and further away from us and more argumentative, and neither I nor his mom could understand what was going on," Keith Williford said. "He became more reclusive and withdrawn and we just couldn't hug each other like we used to."

That changed after his son was charged with Taft's murder in April 2010.

"That's the tragedy of the whole thing," Keith Williford said. "It took this to get our Jason back."

The difference, Keith Williford said, has been like night and day.

Since he's been in jail at Central Prison in Raleigh, Jason Williford has led bible studies with inmates, his father said, and has even done artwork for a prison group called Gangstas for Christ.

The two visit every week, Keith Williford said, and they have meaningful conversations.

"I feel like I've gotten my son back," he said. "Unfortunately, I won't have him back, but I know he's remorseful (for Taft's murder)."

Despite all of his son's issues, Keith Williford said, he feels that his son can go on to lead a life as a valuable member of the prison population.

"That's the only sense that I can make out of this," he said. "As bad as this is and as tragic as this is, maybe God has a purpose for him in His bigger plan. It's not always about us individually."

Williford is the fourth person in Wake County tried on a capital murder charge since 2007, when legal challenges to how the death penalty is carried out in North Carolina effectively put executions on hold.

Only one of the previous three, however, has been sentenced to death in that time.

Taft's children have said they have no opinion on what his sentence should be.

"We just want to make sure that justice services its course," her oldest son, Thomas Taft, said after Friday's verdict.

"There's no relief, in terms of feeling the loss (for our mother) or the loss that Williford's family is feeling," he said of the guilty verdict. "It's a step in the grieving process, but it's by no means the last."

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