Jason Williford pleads not guilty to rape, murder of Kathy Taft

Staff writerFebruary 21, 2012 

WILLIFORD.NE.022012.ASR

Jason Williford speaks with Diane Savage, who is part of his defense counsel, during a pre-trial hearing on Monday, Feb. 20, 2012. Williford is charged with raping and killing 62-year-old Kathy Taft in March of 2010.

SHAWN ROCCO — srocco@newsobserver.com

— Jason K. Williford pleaded not guilty today to raping and murdering state school board member Kathy Taft in March 2010.

The pleading came after a series of legal proceedings related to the case over the past day and a half before Judge Paul Gessner.

Gessner agreed to delay the trial for a month after defense attorneys complained about not having enough time to go through DNA reports and other evidence gathered in the case.

Jury selection is set to start April 9.

Gessner rejected a defense effort to have DNA evidence quashed.

At issue was whether Raleigh police officer Gerry Davis should have waited for a search warrant before collecting a cigarette butt in April 2010 from the parking lot outside Williford's home. If the DNA evidence was improperly collected, it could have meant Williford was arrested without probable cause, undermining the prosecution's case.

Davis testified at the Monday hearing in which lawyers discussed many issues related to the trial, which is slated to begin next month.

Williford, who was at the hearing dressed in an orange and white jail jumpsuit, is accused of breaking into a multi-story home on Cartier Drive, about two-tenths of a mile from his apartment, and sexually assaulting and killing Taft.

Police described the killing as a random act of violence, saying they knew of no connection between the suspect and victim.

Before getting to the arguments about the admissibility of the DNA evidence, defense attorneys and prosecutors gave glimpses of strategies that could be used at trial.

Defense attorneys said they planned to ask potential jurors about their experiences with mental illness, alcohol abuse, homosexuality and child abuse.

Williford, who had an arrest record that included several burglary charges and a breaking and entering conviction in 2001, had issues with alcohol abuse, according to court documents related to other cases.

Defense attorneys said they did not plan to use a defense related to mental health issues, but prosecutors had a state psychiatrist test Williford recently.

Defense attorneys also persuaded prosecutors to let the judge review medical records in private for Dina Arnold Holton, the sister of Taft who called emergency dispatchers on March 6, 2010.

Taft, a Greenville resident, and Holton, a resident of Oriental, were staying in the home of a Raleigh friend, who was in Florida with his mother at the time.

Taft was recuperating from minor cosmetic surgery to her neck. Holton called for help early that Saturday morning after finding her sister in bed, unresponsive and bloodied.

While Taft was at WakeMed, it was discovered she had been sexually assaulted.

For weeks, police hunted for her killer.

Investigators collected DNA samples from men who lived near the Cartier Drive home, asking them to voluntarily stand for swabbing, according to police reports.

Williford refused to be swabbed, according to testimony Monday.

After that, Davis said he was asked to stake out Williford.

Williford and his wife lived in a four-unit apartment building on Wayland Drive. Davis testified that he was in the parking lot of the building, watching for Williford in an unmarked SUV with tinted windows.

Williford pulled into the parking lot, which is set back off the road and surrounded by a heavily wooded area, making it near impossible to see from the street.

Williford pulled in to the lot one April day, according to Davis, smoking a cigarette that he dropped outside his vehicle when reaching for groceries.

Davis testified that he waited about 10 minutes, half the time he put in an affidavit filed in the case this past January, and then called a fellow officer to discuss how they would collect the butt.

Davis said he then put on gloves as his fellow officer went to Williford's apartment under the guise of asking for directions.

Davis said he picked up the butt out of Williford's sight line, put it and the plastic gloves in a bag together and sealed it for evidence.

Defense attorney Michael Driver argued that Davis should have obtained a search warrant, that he was on private property and did not have the authority to collect evidence without one.

Trish Jacobs, the assistant Wake County district attorney, contended otherwise, that the parking lot was a public space and in throwing down the cigarette butt Williford had discarded personal property in an area that was not subject to searches by warrant.

Williford faces the possibility of capital punishment if convicted.

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