Spared the death penalty Thursday, Jason Williford raised his head and looked into the eyes of his victim’s daughter, hearing her poised but anguished words on his way to a life behind bars.
“Jason, I don’t know why you won’t look up here,” said Jessica Gorall, oldest child of the slain Kathy Taft.
Their eyes met, both wet with tears.
“When you raped her,” Gorall said, voice shaking, “you killed something in me, and I will never be the same. I miss her so much.”
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From his chair across the courtroom, Williford appeared to mouth the words “I’m sorry.”
It took jurors five hours to sentence the convicted murderer and rapist, sending him to life in prison without the possibility of parole. When they emerged from the jury room, three jurors were weeping openly. After Taft’s four children made statements from the witness stand, nearly all of the jurors were in tears.
None of Taft’s children upbraided their mother’s killer, saying that they chose instead the higher road she would have taken as a grandmother, Sunday school teacher and long-serving member of the State Board of Education.
“As much anger and hatred as I have in my heart for what you did, I think it would be dishonorable to verbally attack you,” said Jonathan Taft, her “baby boy.” But had Williford met his mother under any other circumstance, Taft said, “she would have left the same positive impact on you as she did everyone else.”
The decision marked the end of a three-week trial that drew Raleigh into the mind of a rapist and killer, showing his deep scars from drug addiction and mental disorder that started in early adolescence.
It also drew the community into the grief of Taft’s family, who endured daily reminders – including color photographs – of the brutality the 62-year-old Taft endured at Williford’s hands.
Taft, a Greenville resident, was recuperating from minor surgery in the Raleigh home of a friend when Williford broke into the house, startled her in the bedroom, bludgeoned her with a rock and sexually assaulted her.
Death penalty in Wake
The death penalty is rarely sought in Wake County and even more rarely handed down. Byron Waring, convicted of a fatal stabbing in 2007, was the last defendant to receive it. To the Taft family, the real victory came with the verdict of first-degree murder, and they thanked the jury for handing it down.
“Justice is done,” Assistant District Attorney David Saacks said. “The jury decided what they decided, and we move on.”
From the witness stand, Gorall said that Taft had her at age 17. “We grew up together,” she said.
Taft raised two daughters as a single mother, getting little financial support, working as a dental hygienist and teaching Sunday school. She remarried and had two sons, starting a new life that took her into state politics.
“I’ve listened to all this testimony,” Gorall said, addressing Williford, “and one thing I remember being from your father is when you were arrested and he was hoping it was a mix-up. I want to tell you what the mix-up was.”
She recalled getting the phone call at her home in Florida and thinking it couldn’t be true. Then, as the reality set in, she recalled throwing the phone and screaming, “What happened to my mom?”
She described explaining rape and murder to her own children, and spending a last night at her bandaged mother’s hospital bed.
“I told her it was OK to let go,” she said, “and I kissed her forehead repeatedly. It was the only spot I could get to on her face.”
No reply from Williford
When they had finished, Superior Court Judge Paul Gessner told Williford to rise and asked if he had anything to say. He did not, and sheriff’s deputies led him away.
Gessner then praised the family’s poise and dignity throughout the trial, thanking them for sharing their mother’s story. He left them with words he heard recently on the radio, a quote from Dr. Seuss: “Don’t cry because it’s over,” he told them. “Smile because it happened.”
As the courtroom cleared, no eyes dry, Williford’s family crossed from the left side to the right, embracing Taft’s family one at a time.
“I’m so sorry for the excruciating pain,” said the defendant’s mother, Pam, holding hands with Taft’s daughter, Paige Fuqua.
Her husband, Keith, clasped hands with Thomas Taft, oldest son, and told him, “She would be so proud of you. God bless you, son.”
On her way downstairs, surrounded by cameras, Pam Williford said simply, “This day belongs to the Taft family.”
Then both families disappeared behind closing elevator doors.