Kathy Taft

Williford closer to learning fate for Kathy Taft's murder

Posted June 5, 2012 12:57 p.m. EDT
Updated June 5, 2012 6:12 p.m. EDT

— The man convicted of raping and murdering state school board member Kathy Taft two years ago is one step closer to learning his fate, as defense attorneys and prosecutors wrapped up their cases Tuesday in the sentencing phase of his murder trial.

A jury of six men and six women found Jason Williford, 32, guilty Friday of first-degree murder and first-degree rape in Taft's March 9, 2010, death. They must now decide if he should spend the rest of his life in prison without the possibility of parole or be sentenced to death.

The state and defense are expected to present final arguments in the case Wednesday morning.

Prosecutors called one witness Monday, an ex-girlfriend of Williford's, who testified that he was physically and sexually violent with her during their three-year relationship in the early 2000s.

Defense attorneys called Williford's father, Ketih Williford, grandmother and several childhood acquaintances to testify Monday.

They called two witnesses Tuesday, including a prison management expert who said that, as a convicted sex offender, Williford has an increased chance of being physically and sexually assaulted in prison, because such convicts are the lowest class in the prison community and have no influence.

James Aiken concluded by saying that he does not believe that Williford poses any kind of threat to the prison population.

"He can be adequately managed and secured in a prison environment for the rest of his life," Aiken said.

Williford's paternal aunt, Dr. Cheryl Kahn, also testified about how alcoholism and mental illness has affected the Williford family over the generations.

Defense attorneys say Williford was predisposed to mental disorders at birth, with both sides of his family suffering from bipolar disorder, depression and alcoholism, to name a few.

Those factors, they have argued, contributed to him breaking into the Raleigh home where Taft was staying, raping and beating her in the head with a rock.

"I think Jason is like Keith," Kahn said. "There's something about all of them that's painful. There's some people who just can't really deal with the pain in the world the way other people can, and they medicate in some way or another to cover up that pain or deal with it."

Kahn described Keith Williford as the "most loving, beautiful man" and his wife, Pam Williford, as one of the best parents she's ever met.

"If you've ever raised children, you know that a mother has to be the strongest person in the family, and she is that person," Kahn said.

Jason Williford's arrest, as well as Taft's murder, have been devastating to the family, Kahn added – something other defense witnesses have attested.

Keith and Pam Williford's pastor, Rev. Skip Williams of Benson Memorial United Methodist Church, testified that the couple has had "a heaviness in the soul" for both their son and for Taft's family.

"We rarely ever have prayer requests go by without lifting the Taft family up in prayer," Williams said.

Jason Williford, too, has expressed sadness and remorse for Taft's death and the pain he's caused her family, Williams added.

Taft's grown children said Friday that the family doesn't have a position on what Williford's sentence should be.

"It doesn’t help me, because my mom's not here," her youngest daughter, Paige Fuqua, said. "We still miss her every day. It doesn't take that away."

Taft, 62, of Greenville, was appointed to the State Board of Education in 1995. Those
who knew her said she had a passion for politics and was a dogged supporter of public education.

She helped found Communities in Schools in Pitt County and spent five years on the local school board before moving to the state school board, where she advocated for raising education standards in North Carolina.

Her children have said that they hope their mother's legacy will outweigh the circumstances surrounding her death.

"I hope, with as much publicity as this case is getting, we can have a couple of people see the good that she did for our state, the good that she did for Pitt County and the good that she did for Greenville," son Thomas Taft said. "Now we have the opportunity, as her children and her family, to just do a small part of what she did during her time on this earth."