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Kahler was mentally ill, defense in murder trial argues

Monday, August 15, 2011 | 2:30 p.m. CDT; updated 9:45 p.m. CDT, Monday, August 15, 2011

LYNDON, Kan. — A former Missouri city official charged with killing his estranged wife, their two daughters and his wife's grandmother in Kansas was mentally ill at the time, his defense attorney said Monday as the trial got under way.

A capital murder trial for James Kraig Kahler, 48, began Monday in Osage County District Court. Prosecutors are seeking the death penalty in connection with the slayings, which occurred the weekend after Thanksgiving 2009 just outside Burlingame, about 20 miles south of Topeka, in the home of Kahler's estranged wife's grandmother.

Osage County Prosecutor Brandon Jones described the shootings as premeditated.

"The defendant proceeded to go through the home, targeting each and every one of the females in that home," Jones said Monday during his opening comments to jurors.

Thomas Haney, a Topeka attorney representing Kahler, said during his opening statement that Kahler was a shell of a man who "snapped" because his wife was having a lesbian affair.

"No one but a person with serious mental illness would do what Mr. Kahler did," Haney said. "He had a psychotic break and he snapped."

The victims of the shootings were Kahler's estranged wife, Karen, 44, her grandmother, Dorothy Wight, 89, and the Kahlers' two daughters, Emily, 18, and Lauren, 16. The killings came less than three months after Kahler was asked to resign as water director in Columbia amid a contentious divorce and facing a domestic assault charge stemming from an altercation with his wife.

Defense attorneys have said in court filings that they'll present evidence showing that a woman from Weatherford, Texas, broke up the Kahlers' marriage, and they're expected to argue that the relationship caused Kahler to suffer a mental breakdown. The family lived in Weatherford before Kahler took the Missouri job in 2008.

The four deaths are covered by a single count of capital murder because Kansas law allows the death penalty for multiple murders arising from a single "scheme or course of conduct."

As an alternative, the state also has filed four counts of first-degree murder, carrying a sentence of life in prison, with no chance of parole for 50 years. Kahler also faces one count of aggravated burglary because, prosecutors contend, he broke into Wight's home.

Among the first witnesses scheduled to testify are Kahler's 12-year-old son, Sean, who was inside the Burlingame home but was not physically injured when the shootings occurred.

The state's list of witnesses includes Sunny Reese, the woman referenced in court documents as having a relationship with Kahler's wife.

Haney said defense attorneys were able to subpoena Reese themselves, but she has not yet talked to them. Haney also said earlier that while his lawyers will present evidence about Kahler's mental state before the shootings, it's not their only line of defense.

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