Kathy Taft

Opening statements set in Kathy Taft murder case

Posted May 15, 2012 5:25 p.m. EDT
Updated May 16, 2012 1:16 p.m. EDT

— Attorneys are expected to present opening statements Wednesday in the first-degree murder trial of a Raleigh man accused of killing state school board member Kathy Taft two years ago.

Taft, 62, of Greenville, died March 9, 2010, three days after she was raped and beaten at 2710 Cartier Drive, the Raleigh home of her longtime companion, where she was staying with her sister while recovering from surgery.

Jason Keith Williford, 32, who lived with his wife a block away at 2812-D Wayland Drive, was arrested more than a month later after police linked him to the crime using DNA from a discarded cigarette butt.

The state is seeking the death penalty, and although prosecutors and defense attorneys have said little about their cases, the DNA evidence that led to Williford’s arrest is likely to be key evidence at the trial.

Defense attorneys have unsuccessfully sought several times to have it thrown out of the trial, challenging the methods in which investigators collected it and the qualifications of the analysts who tested it.

Williford's mental state could also be at issue in trial.

It took the attorneys more than six weeks to seat the jury and three alternates, a time they spent questioning potential jurors on mental health issues and how they would feel if the defense were to agree with most of the state’s evidence but were able to prove that Williford was acting in a "diminished capacity."

Likely jurors were also questioned about their views on homosexuality and whether they can be objective about subjects that might come up at trial, such as cross-dressing, child pornography and animal abuse.

The crime

Taft’s attack in the quiet Wayland Heights neighborhood early on the morning of March 6, 2010, put neighbors on edge for weeks as few details emerged about the investigation, a possible suspect and whether the crime was random.

Taft’s sister, Dina Holton, found her unresponsive and initially called 911, thinking Taft might have possibly been experiencing complications from surgery. It wasn’t until Taft was at the hospital that doctors found she had been raped and beaten in the left side of her head.

For weeks thereafter, police canvassed the neighborhood and conducted traffic stops looking for answers. Neighbors reported that officers went door-to-door asking men in the neighborhood for voluntary DNA samples.

It was Williford’s refusal to give a DNA sample that raised the suspicion of detectives and prompted them to follow him until they got the cigarette butt, a police investigator testified at a pre-trial hearing in February.

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 friends.

The victim

The arrest brought obvious relief to Taft’s four grown children.

"We can start to focus on her life, and we don't have to keep asking these crazy questions," her youngest son, Jonathan Taft said a day later. "I am ready for everybody to start thinking about the good she did, rather than the harm that he caused."

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

She helped found Communities in Schools in Pitt County, and spent five years on the local school board before Gov. Jim Hunt appointed her to the State Board of Education in 1995.

Board members said she was a strong advocate for raising education standards in North Carolina.

"Her passion for education and for finding every opportunity to better serve North Carolina’s children has clearly made this state a better place to live and raise a family," Gov. Beverly Perdue said upon Taft’s death. "For that, we all owe Kathy a debt of gratitude."

The suspect

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

He was convicted in a 1998 felony breaking-and-entering case, in which the homeowner said Williford broke into the home and made calls to phone-sex lines and left feces on the floor.

In 2003, Williford was charged with communicating threats and making harassing phone calls against his girlfriend at the time. Although the charges were voluntarily dismissed, she also took out a protective order against him in 2005, claiming he was violent and emotionally unstable.

Many of Williford’s neighbors said he kept to himself and that they never met him. Others who knew him said he was a talented musician who had drinking problems.

"He was always a devious-looking character, sort of a seedy-looking person," said John Bloomquist, the owner of a downtown café where Williford often played with his band. "He had the type of personality of the kid you just don’t want to be hanging out with."

The death penalty

A de facto moratorium on the death penalty has been in place since 2007 because of legal challenges to how executions are carried out in North Carolina, where 156 people live on death row.

Since then, Wake County prosecutors have sought it only three times and have been successful only once.

"We try to use the death penalty only in those cases in which we think the community would think this is a case in which death is an appropriate verdict," Wake County District Attorney Colon Willoughby said.

Although he has not spoken about the specific reasons for pursuing the death penalty against Williford, Willoughby has said that his office looks at the facts of each case when deciding whether to seek death.

Aggravating circumstances – such as the commission of another crime at the time of a homicide – are factors, but Willoughby said the behavior of a defendant and his or her background also can play a part.

So can the behavior of the victim.

"When you look at the victim, you ask if this person is truly innocent," Willoughby said. "Were they at home minding their own business or in the grocery story just buying groceries?"