Kathy Taft

Jury selection begins in state school board member's slaying

Posted April 9, 2012 5:43 a.m. EDT
Updated April 20, 2012 2:47 p.m. EDT

— After last-minute motions in which defense attorneys tried to get crucial DNA evidence thrown out at trial, jury selection began Monday in the capital murder trial of a Raleigh man accused of raping and beating a North Carolina State Board of Education member two years ago.

Prosecutors are seeking the death penalty for Jason Keith Williford, 32, who faces charges of first-degree murder and first-degree forcible rape in Kathy Taft's death.

Jury selection is expected to last two to three weeks.

Taft, 62, of Greenville, was recovering from surgery in a friend's home on Cartier Drive in Raleigh on March 6, 2010, when she was attacked. She died three days later.

Williford, a local musician who lived less than a quarter-mile from where Taft was staying, was arrested April 16, 2010. Police linked DNA evidence from a cigarette butt that he discarded in an apartment parking lot to the crime.

The evidence is expected to be key in the trial, and defense attorneys have tried several times unsuccessfully to get it thrown out.

In February, they argued that police should have obtained a search warrant before picking up the evidence. On Monday, the defense told Superior Court Judge Paul Gessner that there wasn't enough of the DNA evidence left over from the state's testing for them to have it independently tested.

Gessner, however, did grant a motion Monday morning for the state to turn over the results of two State Bureau of Investigation analysts who failed in December a new DNA certification exam. He also ordered that the exams of their supervisors also be made available to the defense.

Defense attorneys also are likely to focus their case on Williford's mental state at the time of the crime.

He has undergone a state-ordered psychiatric evaluation, and, although they haven't elaborated, the defense says child porn found on his laptop is tied to his psychological history.

According to court documents, Williford had a domestic violence protective order taken out against him in 2005 by a former girlfriend who described him as "emotionally unstable" and claimed his "violence is unpredictable."

Williford was also found guilty of felony breaking and entering in 2001 and breaking and entering in 1998. In the latter case, the homeowner says Williford made calls to phone-sex lines and left feces on the floor.

Former neighbors described Williford as someone who kept to himself and some said that, in the weeks prior to Taft's death, he carried on in a "cavalier manner."

Taft's sister found her unresponsive in bed on the morning of March 6, 2010, and called 911, thinking she was having complications from her surgery.

It was a surgeon who realized that Taft had been assaulted. She died from a fractured skull and extensive brain damage.

Taft's relatives said after a February court hearing that they know the trial will be tough.

"I'm just ready to get this part, this whole, horrific part of my life over with," Taft's daughter, Jessica Gorall, said.

Wake County prosecutors have sought the death penalty only a few times in the past five years, since executions were effectively halted in North Carolina.

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

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

Joshua Stepp also evaded the death penalty in September after he was convicted of sexually assaulting and beating to death his 10-month-old stepdaughter in their Raleigh apartment.

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