LYNDON, Kan. — The Osage County District Court heard from the first 36 of nearly 300 prospective jurors Monday in the capital murder trial of former Columbia Water and Light director James Kraig Kahler.
Already, the trial is behind schedule. The court heard from just two panels of prospective jurors — eight men and seven women on the first panel, and eight men and 13 women on the second — who had filled out preliminary questionnaires July 25.
“It became clear this morning that it’s not going to be three panels a day. It’s going to be two,” Chief Judge Phillip Fromme said mid-afternoon.
The majority of the jurors questioned were familiar with the story of Kahler, 48, who is charged in the Nov. 28, 2009, shooting deaths of his wife, Karen Kahler, 44; two daughters, Emily, 18, and Lauren Kahler, 16; and his wife’s grandmother, Dorothy Wight, 89. He is charged with four counts of capital murder and one count of aggravated burglary in connection with the break-in of Wight's home where the slayings took place two days after Thanksgiving. Kahler's son survived the shootings without physical injuries; he ran to a neighbor's house. He is expected to testify.
Before jury selection began Monday, Fromme dismissed a motion for a change of venue that was filed by the defense last Friday. Fromme sided with Assistant Attorney General Amy Hanley. She'd argued that the defense had not proven that prior knowledge of the case or pretrial publicity had made it impossible for Kahler to receive a fair and impartial trial.
But the challenge was evident as jury selection began Monday.
“Most likely all of you have seen, read or heard something about this case,” Hanley said to both panels. “You may have talked about it with others at the local coffee shop.”
It was this “coffee shop talk” and media coverage of the killings that prompted extensive questioning by both the prosecution and defense. Several potential jurors on both panels said they had developed unchangeable opinions about Kahler and the charges against him.
When asked whether he had a verdict set in his mind, a juror on the first panel replied: "I think it’s pretty obvious."
"Hasn’t he confessed?" asked another on the first panel. "Jealousy’s a terrible thing."
Yet another juror on the second panel became emotional when the prosecutor asked him if he could remain impartial despite prior knowledge of the case.
"I couldn’t go out and kill my own kids," he said, raising his voice. "Could you?"
Some jurors were released after saying they’d be unable to sentence Kahler to death should he be found guilty of capital murder. Several more indicated they would find that task difficult with Kahler sitting before them for the duration of the three- to four-week trial. Hanley underscored the effect Kahler's proximity in the courtroom might have by gesturing toward him as she questioned each person.
“It would be the toughest decision I’ve ever had to make,” said one juror, the only person on the first panel who had served on a jury before.
Defense attorney Tom Haney challenged jurors with questions about specific issues likely to come up during witness testimony, including mental health, crimes against children, homosexuality and domestic abuse.
Fromme ruled July 28 that the defense will be allowed to show evidence of a relationship between Karen Kahler and a woman, Sunny Reese, to support the defense's expected argument that the relationship caused Kahler to have a mental breakdown. A third-degree domestic assault charge against Kahler that was dropped by the Boone County prosecutor after the shootings — as testimony depended in large part upon Karen Kahler — is likely to surface during the trial as well.
More potential jurors were released after expressing strong views on those subjects. Some said they couldn't judge Kahler fairly because, as parents, they were upset that Kahler's children became victims of the shooting. Others cited personal relationships with Wight, who lived in Burlingame, about 20 miles southeast of Lyndon. Still another juror was interviewed alone because she was domestically abused.
“This is a capital murder case,” Haney said to both panels as he reiterated the same points to each potential juror. “This is as serious as it gets.”
Seated at the defense table in a dark suit, button-down shirt and tie, Kahler remained calm throughout the day’s proceedings, smiling a few times at jokes made by the jurors and remaining straight-faced during their sometimes-emotional responses to Hanley and Haney's questions. The courtroom was empty with the exception of a couple of spectators and a few journalists — far more deserted than it is expected to be when the trial begins early next week.
The attorneys narrowed down the first panel to six prospective jurors and the second panel to 13. Jury selection continues Tuesday morning, with the court aiming to have a pool of 45 potential jurors who will return Friday afternoon. That number will be pared down to a group of 12, not including alternate jurors.