Trial set to open in Taft murder case

jshaffer@newsobserver.comMay 16, 2012 

— After five weeks spent picking jurors, attorneys will start the capital murder trial Wednesday for Jason Williford – a rare and high-profile death penalty case for Wake County.

It took 26 days and 120 potential jurors to seat the panel of 12 and three alternates, and evidence in the trial could easily last another six weeks.

Williford, 32, is accused of raping and killing Kathy Taft, a 62-year-old mother, grandmother and state school board member from Greenville who was found unconscious and bloodied in the home of a Raleigh friend. She had been recovering from cosmetic neck surgery, and her skull was crushed by what medical examiners ruled as blunt head trauma.

Her death captured unusual attention because of her political prominence, both as a state school board member and the ex-wife of former state Sen. Tom Taft of Greenville. Gov. Bev Perdue attended her funeral.

“They knew Al Gore and his wife, Tipper,” said Ernest “Buddy” Conner, one of Williford’s attorneys, while questioning a juror. “They knew the governor. They knew the movers and shakers.”

A bass player in a local jam-band, unemployed at the time of the 2010 slaying, Williford pleaded not guilty to the crimes in February. He was charged in the case after Raleigh police asked neighbors around the crime scene on Cartier Drive to provide DNA samples. After Williford refused, police later collected a sample from cigarette that he dropped.

For the last month, Superior Court Judge Paul Gessner has walked potential jurors through the evidence that may surface against Williford, warning them that it could be emotionally volatile, making sure they could hear it and be fair.

Among items that could be introduced: evidence that Williford sought homosexual encounters on Craigslist; that he engaged in sexual activity using inanimate objects such as vegetables; that a computer in his possession contained possible child pornography; and that he was cruel to a family dog.

Gessner warned that bloody linens from the crime scene may be brought into the courtroom.

Earlier this year, Wake County District Attorney Colon Willoughby has said he is pursuing capital punishment because, in the scenario put forth by prosecutors, the case involves an uninvited intruder sexually assaulting and bludgeoning a woman in bandages from surgery.

Assistant District Attorneys David Saacks and Trish Jacobs will prosecute the case. Conner will handle Williford’s defense along with attorneys Diane Savage and Michael Driver.

Shaffer: (919) 829-4818

News & Observer is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service