Williford guilty of first-degree murder


Jurors found Williford guilty of first-degree murder in the 2010 killing of N.C. State Board of Education member Kathy Taft. They jury will return Monday at 9:30 a.m. for the sentencing phase of the trial.

When the verdict was read, Williford looked like he's looked throughout most of his trial. He showed no emotion.

However, for the family of the victim, the verdict brought a sigh of relief. They were grateful that the jury agreed that the murder of Taft was premeditated, not second-degree as the defense had suggested.

"Using all the excuses they tried to give for this demon didn't work and I think he got exactly what he should have gotten," said Taft's daughter Jessica Gorall.

"I breathed a huge sigh of relief and it was good to hear," said Taft's daughter Paige Fuquay. "The jury did their jobs and so did the prosecution and we were very relieved."

Williford was also found guilty of first-degree rape and breaking and entering.

The case was turned over to the jurors just after 3 p.m. Thursday after hearing closing arguments from both the prosecution and defense.

Williford's defense team told jurors that he should be convicted of the lesser charge of second-degree murder in the 2010 rape and murder of Taft.

"That doesn't mean he is not responsible. He is," said attorney Diane Savage.

Williford attacked Taft inside a home on Raleigh's Cartier Lane in the late night hours of March 5 or the early morning hours of March 6, 2010. She died at WakeMed a few days later. The home is in the same neighborhood where Williford and his ex-wife Jessica Foote lived.

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

From the beginning of Williford's trial, his defense team has admitted he raped Taft, but they've argued the crime was not premeditated - a requirement required for a first-degree murder conviction and the death penalty under North Carolina law. They also say he is not guilty of a first-degree burglary charge.

Defense attorney Ernest "Buddy" Conner said the prosecution has not proven he planned the attack before it happened or that he intended to kill Taft.

"The state has not proven these charges. The state cannot prove these charges. Jason is mentally ill. Jason is an addict," he said.

Savage also said there was no evidence of planning - pointing out he didn't bring a weapon or gloves and instead covered his hands with his own socks.

"A planned attack, you get out of town. You wouldn't pick someone in your own neighborhood," said Savage.

Savage said Williford thought he was breaking into an empty home and just happened to come across Taft.

But in his closing argument, prosecutor David Saacks said there was clear evidence Williford went into the home to commit a rape.

Saacks said even when it was obvious to Williford that the house was occupied, he passed up on a chance to leave and instead went into the bedroom where Taft was sleeping.

Taft served on the State School Board for 15 years. She also ran unsuccessfully for a state Senate seat in 2008. Prior to that, she served on the Pitt County Board of Education.

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