UPDATE: Judge denies motion to dismiss Kahler's capital murder case

Tuesday, June 22, 2010 | 2:53 p.m. CDT; updated 3:24 p.m. CDT, Tuesday, June 22, 2010

LYNDON, Kan. — A northeast Kansas judge refused Tuesday to disqualify prosecutors or dismiss a capital murder case against a former Missouri city official accused of shooting his estranged wife, their two teenage daughters and the wife's grandmother.

Lawyers for James Kraig Kahler argued the case against him in Kansas is tainted because authorities seized documents related to divorce and domestic assault cases against him in Columbia. Defense attorneys said the seizure and use of those records violated the constitutionally protected confidences between Kahler and his lawyers.

But Osage County Magistrate Judge Jon Stephen Jones ruled any potential taint could be eliminated by not allowing the state to introduce the documents as evidence. Jones said court precedents show the attorney-client privilege of confidentiality should be invoked within "the strictest possible limits."

Kahler, 46, is charged with a single count of capital murder in the shootings of Karen Kahler, 44; Emily Kahler, 18; Lauren Kahler, 16, and Dorothy Wight, 89. The killings occurred two days after Thanksgiving 2009 in Wight's home just outside Burlingame. The estranged couple's son, Sean Kahler, now 11, was at the home but fled and was not injured.

Kansas Deputy Attorney General Barry Disney called the attempt by Kahler's attorneys to either dismiss the capital murder charge or remove prosecutors a "Hail Mary request" and "laughable."

"We've done nothing wrong. We seized documents and inventoried them," Disney told Jones during a hearing at the Osage County Courthouse. "Their motion is frivolous."

Tom Haney, one of Kahler's attorneys, said the Kansas Bureau of Investigation clearly reviewed the documents because the agency reported that they contained possible evidence of a motive for the shootings. Kahler's wife had filed for divorce in March 2009 following an altercation, and that incident also led to the assault charge, which was dropped after her death. Kahler was asked to resign last fall from his job as director of Columbia Water and Light.

Haney said he doesn't blame the KBI for what happened with the documents but added that the attorney general's office should have given KBI agents guidance.

"You stop the search. You seal the documents," he said. "You don't simply continue to go through them to see what you can get."

Haney said he's not sure whether Kahler's attorneys will appeal Jones' ruling to District Judge Phillip Fromme, who would handle a trial. Jones plans to have another hearing in Kahler's case July 30, then an additional one Aug. 19-20 to determine whether there's enough evidence to warrant a trial.

Disney said the protection for attorney-client confidences is meant to keep prosecutors from interfering with their preparation of a defense in a criminal case. He said prosecutors are typically sanctioned when they spy on or wiretap attorney-client conversations.

"You have to consider the circumstances," Disney told Jones in court. "The police are investigating a quadruple murder, and it's only a few hours after the murder has occurred."

Disney also said Haney was misrepresenting the KBI report's contents and said none of the documents in question — 10 in all, running several dozen pages — have been used so far in the case against Kahler.

"Where does it say we used them?" he said of the KBI report. "It's not in there."

Haney stood by his statement, adding, "If they don't scrutinize their own evidence, then you look for another investigator."

Jones agreed it's likely the KBI reviewed the material.

"Of course the KBI was looking for anything it would find relative to the motive," he said from the bench. "That would be natural and sensible."

But the judge also questioned whether authorities' actions represented "a deliberate intrusion" into Kahler's capital murder defense.

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