Kathy Taft

Jury selection enters fourth week in Taft's accused killer's trial

Posted April 27, 2012 4:57 p.m. EDT
Updated April 27, 2012 10:35 p.m. EDT

— After three weeks of jury selection, attorneys in the capital murder trial of a Raleigh man accused of killing state school board member Kathy Taft have chosen seven jurors in the case.

Taft, 62, of Greenville, died March 9, 2010, three days after she was raped and beaten while recovering from surgery at a friend's home at 2710 Cartier Drive in Raleigh's Wayland Heights neighborhood.

Jason Keith Williford, who lived with his wife a block away from the home, was arrested more than a month later after police linked him to crime using DNA from a discarded cigarette butt.

Jury selection, which started April 9, has been a slow process, with attorneys spending hours vetting each potential juror about their views on mental health issues, homosexuality and the death penalty.

Superior Court Judge Paul Gessner has also been asking if they can be objective about subjects that might come up at trial, such as cross-dressing, child pornography, animal abuse, sex acts with inanimate objects and solicitation of sex on the Internet.

Twelve jurors, plus two alternates, are needed for the trial.

"It is a very difficult process," said local defense attorney Hart Miles about the jury selection process. "You want to find what kind of jurors are going to be the best ones for your particular case."

That's based partly on how potential jurors respond to questions as well as their body language, said Miles, who is not associated with the Williford case.

Attorneys want jurors who are open-minded and can base their decision what they see in the courtroom on fact, he said.

"You want them to be completely unbiased so that they base their decision on the evidence they hear," Miles said.

Prosecutors and defense attorneys have said little about their cases, but the DNA evidence that led to Williford's arrest is likely to be a big part of the case.

Defense attorneys have unsuccessfully sought several times to have it thrown out of the trial, saying it was improperly collected and contaminated. They have also raised issues about the accreditation of state analysts who tested the evidence.

Williford's mental state could also be at issue.

Defense attorneys have asked potential jurors how they would feel if the defense were to agree with most of the prosecutor's evidence but were able to prove that the defendant was acting in a "diminished capacity."

Taft, a mother of four and grandmother of five, served on the state school board for more than 15 years after being appointed by former Gov. Jim Hunt.

Those who knew her said she had a passion for politics and was a dogged supporter and advocate of public education.

At the time of his arrest, Williford, 32, was an amateur musician who had worked as an electrician's assistant while studying to be an electrician.

He was found guilty of first-degree burglary in 2001 and breaking and entering in 1998 in Wake County. In 2005, a former girlfriend took out a protective order against him, claiming he was violent and emotionally unstable.

Police investigating Taft's attack focused on Williford after he refused to provide a DNA sample when officers canvassed Wayland Heights in the weeks after her death, asking male neighbors to submit samples voluntarily.

A detective testified at a pre-trial hearing in February that they followed him until they were able to collect a cigarette butt that he had tossed on the street.