Kahler could receive death sentence if convicted

Wednesday, December 2, 2009 | 8:38 p.m. CST; updated 6:16 p.m. CST, Friday, December 4, 2009

*CORRECTION: The Kansas Attorney General's office is required to tell the court after James Kraig Kahler's arraignment whether they will seek the death penalty. An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported the timing of the procedure.

If former Columbia Water and Light Director James Kraig Kahler is found guilty of capital murder in a Kansas court, he could receive a sentence of death by lethal injection.

However, the chance of an execution in Kansas seems unlikely considering the history of the death penalty in the state. Ten men are already awaiting execution on death row, but no one has been put to death in Kansas since 1965.

The Kansas Attorney General’s office has not yet announced whether it will seek the death penalty in its prosecution of Kahler, who was charged on Monday with the murders of his estranged wife Karen Kahler, 44, and daughters Emily Kahler, 18, and Lauren Kahler, 16.

The attorney general's office intends before the end of the week to amend the capital murder charge against Kahler to include Karen Kahler’s grandmother, Dorothy Wight, 89. Wight died Tuesday afternoon from wounds suffered during the shooting, which occurred at about 6 p.m. on Saturday.

The Kansas Attorney General's office is required to tell the court after James Kraig Kahler's arraignment whether they will seek the death penalty.* In Kansas, a defendant can be charged with capital murder if he has killed a law enforcement officer, if a victim is killed under particularly heinous conditions or if more than one victim is killed in a single incident.

The attorney general's office has already filed three alternative charges of first-degree murder and will file a fourth this week, each carrying a punishment called "the hard 50," a 50-year sentence without the possibility of parole.

"All of the options are on the table at this point," said Ashley Anstaett, a spokeswoman for the attorney general's office.

John Kerns, a Lawrence, Kan., defense lawyer who has tried five first-degree murder cases, said the chances of Kahler receiving a death sentence are "pretty thin," but it is too early to tell if the acts in this case would be considered malicious enough to warrant a death sentence.

"This case may very well fall into that category," said Kerns, who had read about last weekend's shootings in the news.

The last prisoners executed in Kansas were put to death by hanging. James Latham and George York were put to death June 22, 1965, after they were found guilty of killing seven people in a cross-country murder spree.  

Their executions came a few months after the executions of Richard Hickock and Perry Smith, who were convicted of killing Holcomb, Kan. farmer Herbert Clutter, his wife and their two children. The Clutter murders were made famous by Truman Capote's 1966 non-fiction novel, "In Cold Blood."

There is no single answer to why the state hasn't sent a prisoner to death in over four decades. But Kansas appears to be relatively squeamish about the death penalty, especially compared to Missouri where 67 people have been executed since 1976.

Kansas has not been sentencing prisoners to death for very long, comparatively speaking. For 22 years, Kansas didn't have a death penalty.

In 1972, the U.S. Supreme Court banned capital punishment, but the decision was overturned in 1976 when the court ruled that capital punishment did not violate the  constitutional protection against cruel and unusual punishment. That gave states the right to punish by execution. Since 1976, 1,185 prisoners have been put to death in the U.S, according to the the Death Penalty Information Center.

Kansas is one of the 36 states that now allow the death penalty, but it didn't join the group until 1994 — over two decades later than some of those states. 

Sean O'Brien, a law professor at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, said because the state's capital punishment laws were enacted much later than those of other states, Kansas was able to draft its law while considering problems that capital punishment has caused in other states.

O'Brien said Kansas capital punishment laws are more restrictive. Unlike many other states that allow the death penalty, Kansas does not allow prisoners who are juveniles or mentally retarded to be executed.

In addition, after Kansas began to allow the death penalty, the state's public defender commission formed the Death Penalty Defense Unit, composed of six attorneys who specialize in cases in which prosecutors are seeking capital punishment. The Death Penalty Defense Unit has been appointed to represent Kahler in the case.

Kansas also gives fewer death sentences. It has a lower-than-average murder rate in the U.S., meaning fewer cases would be eligible for a death penalty conviction. The national average per 100,000 people in 2008 was 5.4 while Kansas' murder rate was 4.0, according to the FBI's Uniform Crime Reports.  

By comparison, in Missouri, where O'Brien said there has been a more "regular flow" of death penalty cases, the murder rate was 7.7 per 100,000.

O'Brien also cited a sociological reason for Kansas' low rate of execution. States like Missouri with a long history of tolerating lynching are more apt to put prisoners to death. In 1903, Kansas became the first state to make lynching a felony.

Donna Schneweis, a member of the Kansas Coalition Against the Death Penalty, said public opinion in the state has swung away from approval of the death penalty.

"There is more awareness that (the death penalty) is not the panacea" Kansans thought it was when it became law again in 1994, she said.

If Kahler is convicted and sent to death row, he would have been convicted with more deaths than any other prisoner with a death sentence except for brothers Reginald and Jonathan Carr, who are awaiting execution for the murders in 2000 of five people.

Kahler is scheduled to appear for a preliminary hearing Oct. 10 in Osage County, Kan.

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Yvonne Guest December 2, 2009 | 9:35 p.m.

I hope they do put him to death. It's better than he deserves.

(Report Comment)
John Schultz December 2, 2009 | 9:47 p.m.

What's up with the hibbity-doo-wah in the URL?

(Report Comment)
Rob Weir December 3, 2009 | 7:38 a.m.

John: The URL is automatically generated based on a field in the story creation template. Reporters create all their stories in this Web site's content management system first, and they're subsequently edited in the CMS before publication.

I haven't talked to Andrew, but my guess is that he may have tossed that in as placeholder text, not realizing it would generate a url.

Clearly it's not what we intended to publish, and I apologize.

Regardless, it's fixed now. If you have any other questions or concerns about it, please feel free to contact me.

Rob Weir
Director of Digital Development
The Columbia Missourian

(Report Comment)
Hugo Spottiswoode December 14, 2009 | 3:45 p.m.

"Kansas does not allow prisoners who are juveniles or mentally retarded to be executed."

I thought the US Supreme court forced all states to drop the death sentace for Juvenile or mentally retarded offenders.

(Report Comment)

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