NC Court of Appeals upholds use of cigarette butt evidence in conviction for Kathy Taft murder

Jason Williford was in Nash Correctional Institution serving a life sentence for the murder and rape of former North Carolina school board member Kathy Taft on Tuesday, when debate was revived about the collection of DNA evidence used at his trial.

The N.C. Court of Appeals issued a ruling in the morning that upheld the guilty verdicts returned by a Wake County jury on June 1, 2012.

At issue was whether a Raleigh police officer violated Williford’s rights when he collected a discarded cigarette butt in the parking lot of the apartment building where the unemployed musician lived without first obtaining a search warrant.

A three-judge N.C. Appeals Court panel said collection of the evidence was constitutional and that Williford received a fair trial.

John R. Mills, the attorney who represented Williford on appeal, still contends otherwise and said he plans to seek review by the N.C. Supreme Court.

“The key issue is privacy,” Mills said. “All that Mr. Williford was asking them to do was have a court agree that there was enough probable cause that he committed a crime to ask for his DNA.”

The case raises issues about the delineation between home and the surrounding area, and where personal privacy begins and ends.

“Local law enforcement and crime lab scientists worked tirelessly to solve this brutal murder, with DNA evidence helping investigators zero in on the right suspect,” N.C. Attorney General Roy Cooper said in a statement released shortly after the appeals court decision. “Today’s ruling means law enforcement can continue to combine old-fashioned detective work with high-tech science to solve cases and achieve justice.”

Williford lived with his wife and several pet dogs in a four-unit apartment building about two-tenths of a mile from the house where Taft was attacked.

She was staying with her sister at a residence on Cartier Drive, the home of a friend who was out of town, recovering from minor cosmetic surgery she had undergone on the morning of March 5, 2010. Investigators said the attack occurred that night.

A DNA sample

Williford broke into the house, where he startled Taft, 62. He bludgeoned her with a rock and sexually assaulted her, according to trial testimony. She died on March 9.

Taft’s sister initially thought the bloody assault scene was due to complications from her surgery. But hospital workers quickly realized that Taft, a state school board member for 15 years, had been raped and brutally beaten.

For weeks, as friends and family mourned the loss of the Kinston native who lived most of her adult life in Greenville, investigators searched for clues. At WakeMed, medical workers had collected a rape kit, and it showed male DNA that investigators could compare to DNA samples from suspects.

But in the early days after the attack, investigators had not settled on a clear motive for the crime and had not identified suspects.

They set up road blocks in the area to ask motorists for any recollections of that night. They also collected DNA samples from men who lived near the Cartier Drive home, asking them to stand voluntarily for swabbing, according to police reports.

Williford had an arrest record that included several burglary charges and a breaking-and-entering conviction in 2001. He refused to be swabbed.

After that, Raleigh officers from the fugitive unit were asked to stake out Williford, but they were not told what homicide case they were working on, according to court testimony.

One of those officers, Gerry Davis, sat in a parking lot of the four-unit building on Wayland Drive, watching for Williford in an unmarked SUV with tinted windows.

One day in April 2010, Williford drove into the parking lot, which is set back off the road and surrounded by a heavily wooded area, making it close to impossible to see from the street.

A cigarette butt

He was smoking a cigarette that he dropped outside his vehicle as he reached for groceries.

Davis testified that he put on gloves as a fellow officer went to Williford’s apartment under the guise of asking for directions. Davis said he picked up the butt out of Williford’s sight line, put it and the plastic gloves in a bag together and sealed it for evidence.

Williford was arrested after tests showed a match between DNA on the cigarette and the DNA collected at the hospital after Taft was attacked.

Defense attorney Michael Driver argued in February 2012 at a hearing seeking to have the evidence suppressed that Davis should have obtained a search warrant. Driver contended that Davis was on private property and did not have the authority to collect evidence without one.

Trish Jacobs, the assistant Wake County district attorney at the 2012 hearing, contended otherwise. She argued that the parking lot was a public space. In throwing down the cigarette butt, she said, Williford had discarded personal property in an area that was not subject to searches by warrant.

The three-judge appeals court panel ruled similarly, saying the butt was admissible evidence because Williford had tossed it down in a common area outside the boundary of his home where he had no reasonable expectation of privacy.

There was no gate restricting access to the parking lot or signs indicating it was private property, the appellate panel pointed out, and the five to seven spaces in the lot were not assigned to particular units.

“The defendant did not have a reasonable expectation of privacy in the parking lot, he abandoned his cigarette butt by discarding it,” Judge Ann Marie Calabria stated in the ruling, with which Judges Rick Elmore and Linda Stephens concurred. “Its subsequent collection and analysis by law enforcement did not implicate defendant’s constitutional rights.”

At trial, Williford acknowledged that he had raped and killed Taft. But defense attorneys contended he had alcohol, drug and sexual addiction that robbed him of an ability to comprehend and control his actions and sought a second-degree murder conviction.

Prosecutors sought the death penalty against Williford, but a jury recommended a sentence of life in prison without possibility of parole.