Kathy Taft

Kathy Taft's killer guilty of first-degree murder

Posted June 1, 2012 3:22 p.m. EDT
Updated June 4, 2012 12:54 p.m. EDT

— A Raleigh man was found guilty Friday of first-degree murder in the 2010 rape and beating death of North Carolina state school board member Kathy Taft.

The jury of six men and six women, which deliberated for about 5½ hours before reaching its verdict, must now decide whether Jason Keith Williford will spend the rest of his life in jail or face the death penalty.

A sentencing hearing is expected to begin Monday at 9:30 a.m.

Williford, 32, was also found guilty of first-degree rape and non-felonious breaking and entering in connection with Taft's March 6, 2010, attack.

He sat quietly, head bowed, as Superior Court Judge Paul Gessner read aloud the verdicts. As bailiffs escorted him from the courtroom, he turned around and told his parents, sister and grandmother that he loved them.

Williford's family did not want to comment Friday afternoon.

Taft, a 15-year member of the state school board, mother of four and grandmother of five, was recovering from cosmetic surgery at the Raleigh home of a longtime friend when Williford, who lived less than two blocks away, broke into the house and attacked her. She died three days later.

The verdicts brought some relief to her children, who said that, although they are happy to see justice served, it will not bring back their mother.

"There's no relief in terms of feeling our loss or the loss that Williford's family is feeling," Taft's oldest son, Thomas Taft, said. "It's a step in the grieving process, but it's by no means the last."

Defense attorneys, who urged jurors to return a second-degree murder verdict, admitted Williford attacked Taft but argued that it was fueled by a perfect storm of drugs, alcohol and mental illness and that he did not have the capacity to plan out the crime or fully realize the consequences of his actions.

But prosecutors argued that, although Williford had mental issues, the unemployed musician knew exactly what he was doing when he broke into the house.

"He's calculated, cognizant and cold, and it's those actions and that personality disorder that led to Kathy's demise," Wake County District Attorney David Saacks said in closing argument Thursday. "He took Kathy's life, and he took her dignity and he did it all for his own pleasure."

Jurors found Williford guilty of first-degree murder under what's known as the theory of malice, premeditation and deliberation, which means that they found that he intended to attack and kill Taft. He was also found guilty under the state's first-degree felony murder rule in perpetration of rape.

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.

"I think (the prosecution) made a statement – you just don't get to go out and do such heinous crimes and get away with it," Taft's oldest daughter, Jessica Gorall, said.

Taft's family said they have no opinion on what Williford's fate should be but said that it will be a difficult process – one they just want to try to put behind them.

"I feel like I've been swimming for a long time and that I kind of get to come up and get a breath of air, and I'm looking forward to coming up and grasping that fresh air," Gorall said. "I'll always miss my mom. This will never bring back mom, but, at least now, I just feel like I can breathe."