Williford jury hears of Bible studies, rape

June 3, 2012 9:00:00 PM PDT
On Monday, a jury charged with deciding Jason Williford's fate, either life behind bars or the death penalty, heard testimony that depicted the convicted killer as a prodigal son, a Bible study leader, and a violent ex-boyfriend.

Williford was found guilty Friday of first-degree murder in the 2010 killing of N.C. State Board of Education member Kathy Taft. He was also found guilty of first-degree rape and breaking and entering.

The same jury in the sentencing hearing believed Williford attacked Taft inside a home on Raleigh's Cartier Lane sometime between the late night hours of March 5 or the early morning hours of March 6, 2010. She died at WakeMed a few days later.

On the night Taft was attacked, she and her sister were house-sitting while Taft recovered from plastic surgery. According to testimony from the medical examiner, Taft had been sexually assaulted. Prosecutors said Williford hit her in the head several times with a rock.

A reluctant witness

Williford's former girlfriend took the stand in his sentencing hearing after begging to be kept out of the murder trial. Mary Josephine "Jo" James made it known that before the trial, she had been reluctant to be in the same room with Williford.

She testified that throughout the course of the couple's three year relationship, there were instances where he pushed, shoved and hit her. James also said Williford forced her to have intercourse on more than one occasion.

"It would just be forced ... hold my arm ... behind my back," she said.

During the trial, Jason Williford's ex-wife Jessica Foote claimed that five days prior to Taft's attack, Williford attempted to rape her. She said Williford also pushed her down and pinned her arms behind her back. After a struggle, Williford relented and Foote never reported the incident to the police.

However, James testified that she filed a protective order against Williford in 2005 following a violent incident that happened shortly after the birth of her son.

While in the hospital, she had confronted Williford about calls to escort services dialed from his cell phone.

"He threw me into the door, and pulled me down to the floor by my hair, kicked me a few times, and then threw some flowers on me, and spit on me," she said.

She said a nurse intervened and Williford was escorted out of the hospital by security.

On cross-examination, Williford's defense attorney hammered James about her character, noting that she led Williford to believe he was the father of her son even though she knew there was a 50/50 chance. Williford was not the father.

He also pointed out her convictions for stealing from an employer and a cocaine addiction.

A new beginning for father and son

Next, the jury heard from Williford's father.

Keith Williford testified that he noticed that while his son was growing up he had pent up emotions.

Several times, he said, he tried to communicate with his son only to have him respond with "you wouldn't understand."

Williford's father said about six years prior to Taft's murder, his son tried to open up to him but spoke in such "abstract terms" that he couldn't understand him.

Williford testified that the immediate family's relationship was strained for several years and that his son, who dropped out of high school and struggled to hold down jobs in his adult life, had been kicked out of the family home several times.

In 2010, Williford was a struggling musician who had recently lost his job at The Mellow Mushroom in Raleigh.

His father recalled a time when he and his son went to bluegrass artist Bela Fleck's concert in Raleigh. Williford was able to meet and spend time with Fleck's bassist Victor Wooten.

"He showed Jason how to play 'Amazing Grace' on the bass," said Williford and mentioned that the encounter inspired his son to pursue music as a career.

"He was searching for something he liked, had a passion for."

During Monday's hearing, the defense played for the jury music that was written and performed by Williford.

It was the first time the jury heard from Williford, who did not testify during his trial.

CLICK HERE TO HEAR THE SONG

He said since Williford's arrest, family relations have improved.

"It's been like night and day," he said.

Williford said his son organizes and leads Bible studies behind bars at Central Prison in Raleigh.

When questioned by the prosecutor if there had been violence at home, Williford admitted that arguments between his son and him had gotten "nose-to-nose."

Williford spoke of a time when he struck his son during a heated argument which was not retaliated.

"I have never seen Jason strike anybody," said Williford.

He said he fell apart when he heard that his son had been arrested for Taft's murder and went to visit him.

"I put my hand on the glass, and he put his hand on the glass and we talked through," said Williford.  "I said, 'Jason, we'll get this straightened out.'"

Since then, he said communication between him and his son has improved.

"We have conversations, even in Central Prison, conversations that we couldn't have in his formidable years," he said. "I feel like I got my son back, but unfortunately I won't have him back."

A hope for redemption

Since his arrest, the family's pastor Rev. Skip Williams, from Benson Memorial United Methodist Church, has had regular visits with Williford.

Williams testified that their conversations grew from initial reluctance to philosophical discussions.

"I think there is a person in there that genuinely regrets the situation," said Williams. "Understanding that he can't change it hurts him.  I think he would change it if he could."

Testimony in the sentence hearing will continue Tuesday.

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