Williford acknowledges raping Taft, fracturing her skull

jshaffer@newsobserver.comMay 17, 2012 

— In a tense and hushed courtroom Wednesday, Jason Williford stood and confirmed this story: he entered a neighbor’s house seeking an adrenaline rush, raped Kathy Taft and hit her three times – fracturing her skull.

His statement to Superior Court Judge Paul Gessner came moments after Williford’s attorney delivered an emotional, hour-long opening statement that detailed his 32-year-old client’s lifelong struggle with addiction and mental illness. On the night of the crime, Williford had consumed whiskey, beer, marijuana and Ritalin, his lawyer said. He entered the home thinking nobody was there, hitting Taft after she made a noise.

“I wish there was a nice way to say this,” said attorney Ernest “Buddy” Conner, speaking to the jury in almost a whisper. “But he rapes her. He has sex with her. He fractures her skull. We don’t deny the awfulness of what he did.”

Taft, 62 when she died, came from a prominent family in Greenville and served on the state Board of Education.

Williford was unemployed and married at the time of slaying in 2010. Prosecutors, seeking the death penalty, contend that Williford broke in, raped and bludgeoned Taft in a bedroom on Cartier Drive in Raleigh, where she was recovering from cosmetic neck surgery at the home of an out-of-town boyfriend. No link between Taft and Williford is known, and police have described the crime as random violence.

Conner stressed that his client did not commit premeditated murder or burglary. Williford’s brain chemistry had been altered by alcohol, drugs and hyper-sexual disorder, Connor said. Although Conner told Wake County jurors Wednesday that Williford had raped Taft, he did not say Williford was guilty of rape.

“Jason Williford is mentally ill,” Conner said. “He is not right. He has never been right.”

Prosecutors opened their case by describing Taft in the familiar and comfortable home of her Raleigh boyfriend. She was being assisted by her sister.

“She felt safe. She was in her home away from home,” Assistant District Attorney Trish Jacobs said. “She was wrong.”

A night of drugs, alcohol

Conner told jurors that Williford was stressed-out and ashamed at having recently lost his job at Mellow Mushroom. He spent the night of the crime drinking Old Crow whiskey with a friend. They also snorted the prescription drug Ritalin, which Williford used as “legalized speed” rather than as medicine. The two continued late into the night, adding beer and marijuana to the mix, and playing guitar and drums at Williford’s house to the annoyance of his wife.

After Williford drove his friend home, he returned to his house and dreaded seeing his wife. So Williford wandered around his neighborhood, Conner said. He chose to enter the house where Taft was staying because the mailbox was full, and he figured no one was home. Williford did not notice Taft’s white Lexus parked outside.

He took nothing inside: not jewelry, guns or Taft’s purse, Conner said. Williford panicked, Connor said, when he heard Taft make a noise from her bedroom, and he hit her three times with a rock, knocking her out, while his mind raced.

Jacobs told the jury that Williford retreated to his nearby home after the crime, crawled into bed with his wife and fell asleep. The injured Taft died several days later.

“While he slept, she was bleeding,” Jacobs said.

Letters to family

Jacobs said police executing a search warrant of Williford’s residence found two letters hidden in a book – one to his family and another to his wife.

“For some reason I made this choice,” he wrote in the letter to his family. “This evil in me I never understood and tried so hard to hide. But some things can’t be changed I guess.”

Conner described Williford as a mentally ill from childhood, partly through genetics and partly by environment. His father, Keith, had problems with alcohol, inherited from his own father. His mother, Pam, suffers from panic attacks, and has a relative in Tennessee who talks to street lamps, Conner said. Another relative died as a drunk on “skid row,” Conner said.

For many years, Williford hid that he had been abused by an assistant at a Christian academy he attended as a child, according to Conner. The lawyer said doctors have diagnosed Williford’s alcohol dependence, marijuana dependence, amphetamine dependence, mood disorder, sexual disorder, personality disorder, depressive disorder and anxiety.

Conner chronicled numerous attempts by doctors and Williford’s family to treat his mental illnesses. Williford’s inability to discuss what was going on in his mind frustrated those efforts. He often failed to take the Lithium he had been prescribed. His parents were told, and hoped, that their son would grow out of it, Conner said. Once, believing him suicidal, they Williford involuntarily committed to Dorothea Dix Hospital, Conner said, but he was discharged soon after.

‘Unconventional’ sex

As he grew older, Williford developed “unconventional” sexual practices, including arranging sex with men met on Craigslist, Conner said. Williford’s mother found her underwear in his room with the crotch cut out, Conner said, and she was repulsed. She also found evidence of his self-gratification with cucumbers and zucchini, Conner said.

Alcohol and marijuana became heavy habits, Conner said. Williford also was prone to huffing Freon from air-conditioners to get high, according to Conner.

Along with a large interest in pornography, Conner said, Williford also developed a habit of breaking into homes to seek thrills. He would watch X-rated videotapes at other people’s houses. At one time, he hung out with friends who vandalized neighborhoods, and he once toilet-papered the home of Raleigh native Clay Aiken, of “American Idol” and “The Celebrity Apprentice” fame.

But nobody – not his wife, parents, or friends – knew the depth of his problems, Conner said.

Testimony continues Thursday.

Shaffer: 919-829-4818

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