Kansas prosecutors to seek death penalty for Kahler

Monday, February 7, 2011 | 7:26 p.m. CST; updated 11:08 a.m. CST, Tuesday, February 8, 2011

COLUMBIA — Prosecutors in Kansas made official the state's intent to seek the death penalty for James Kraig Kahler if he's found guilty of killing his wife, two teenage daughters and his wife's grandmother.

The notice was filed Monday in an arraignment hearing in Osage County District Court in Lyndon, Kan.

Prosecutors sought the separate sentencing for Kahler based on two necessary criteria for sentencing someone to death in Kansas:

  • The defendant knowingly or purposely killed or created great risk of death to more than one person.
  • The defendant committed the crime in an especially heinous, atrocious or cruel manner.

Kahler and his family were all Columbia residents. Kahler's wife, Karen Kahler, and their three children were all visiting Karen Kahler's grandmother, Dorothy Wight, in Burlingame, Kan., on Nov. 28, 2009. The youngest child, Sean Kahler, who was 10 years old at the time, testified in December that his father walked into Wight's house and began shooting his family.

Sean Kahler escaped the house and ran to a neighbor. Other than his father, he is the only survivor.

Karen Kahler, 44, Emily, 18, and Lauren, 16, all died in the Kansas home. Wight, 89, died in the hospital three days later.

Kraig Kahler was Columbia's Water and Light director from July 2008 until he was asked to resign in September 2009. Karen Kahler had filed for a divorce in January 2009, and two months after that, Kraig Kahler was charged with a third-degree domestic assault against his wife. Karen Kahler filed an order of protection against him at that time. Five days before his domestic assault trial was to take place, the slayings happened.

Kansas has not executed anyone since 1965. That year, four men were hanged. Two of them were Richard Hickock and Perry Smith, the men convicted of killing Herbert and Bonnie Clutter and two of their four children. Truman Capote made the Clutter murders famous in his 1966 nonfiction novel, "In Cold Blood." 

A few months later, the other two men were hanged for killing seven people across the country. Although several people have been sentenced to death in Kansas since then, none of the executions have been carried out.

Kahler declined to personally enter a plea at the arraignment. This means the court automatically enters a not guilty plea on his behalf. One of Kahler's attorneys, Thomas Haney, said this is a common practice in Kansas law and that he has all of his clients decline to enter a plea for "tactical" reasons. Kahler is also being defended by Amy Vogelsberg.

Kahler's trial is set to begin Aug. 8, but three motion hearings and a pre-trial hearing are scheduled in May, June and July. 

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