LYNDON, Kan. — James Kraig Kahler sat completely still and expressionless as he learned that the jury found him guilty of capital murder and four counts of first-degree murder in the slayings of his wife, daughters and his wife's grandmother and one count of aggravated burglary.
The only sound in the courtroom as the bailiff read the jury's decision was the shuffling of papers on which the jury foreman had signed the verdict. Kahler's parents, Wayne and Patricia Kahler, and most of Karen Kahler's family were also straight-faced. Karen Kahler's sister, Lynn Denton, closed her eyes and appeared to be fighting back tears.
The attorneys and family members left the courtroom quickly after the 12-person jury was released, declining to comment until after sentencing.
That phase of Kahler's trial will begin 9 a.m. Monday. Kahler can receive either the death penalty, or life in prison without the possibility of parole for 50 years, a sentence that's decided by the jury after hearing more evidence.
Defense attorney Tom Haney requested more time when Chief Judge Phillip Fromme asked if the sentencing proceedings could begin Friday. He told the court the defense would most likely call psychiatrist Stephen Peterson, Kahler's parents and possibly one other witness.
Osage County Prosecuting Attorney Brandon Jones said the prosecution expects to call forensic pathologist Erik Mitchell and psychiatrist William Logan back to the stand. He said the prosecution would finish its witness presentations in one day.
The question of Kahler’s mental state at the time of the shootings and his ability to plan them was the key point during both sides’ closing arguments. Instructions given to the jury define premeditation as having thought a matter over beforehand. While no specific time frame is given, the instructions state premeditation requires more than the instantaneous act of taking another person’s life.
In convicting him of capital murder and four counts of first-degree murder, the jury was required to find Kahler guilty of the crimes and of either premeditating the killings or having the intent to kill the four women. Kansas law allows a defendant to be charged with capital murder if multiple people are killed in the same incident.
The jury was instructed to use the same claims to convict him of four alternative counts of first-degree murder, one for each person shot, if jurors do not vote to convict him of capital murder.
The jury — made up of seven men and five women — spent just two hours deliberating Thursday.
Kansas hasn't carried out the death penalty since 1965. That year, James Latham and George York were executed by hanging after they were convicted of killing seven people across the country. Perry Smith and Richard Hickock were also executed in 1965 for the 1959 murders of the Clutter family in Holcomb, Kan. The Clutter murders would become the subject of Truman Capote's 1966 nonfiction novel, "In Cold Blood."
Kahler was the director of Columbia Water and Light from July 2008 until September 2009. His daughters both attended Rock Bridge High School, though his oldest daughter was a college student in St. Louis at the time of her death. His son, Sean Kahler, who escaped from house the night of the shootings, attended Rock Bridge Elementary School. Karen Kahler was a trainer at Columbia's Activity and Recreation Center.
In her closing statement, Assistant Attorney General Amy Hanley said the shootings clearly reflected Kahler’s organized, controlling and calculating personality. When Kahler couldn’t fix his marriage or family, she said, he decided to “eliminate the problem.”
“He murdered them all, one by one,” she continued. “He killed his family because they were no longer perfect.”
The state focused its closing arguments on the fact that Kahler had planned the murders of his wife, daughters and his wife’s grandmother, knowing that they would all be at Wight’s home that night.
Hanley cited a list of factors the state argued showed premeditation on Kahler’s part, including the following:
- Kahler’s father and brother, Wayne and Kris Kahler, told the jury about “disturbing” statements Kraig Kahler had made in the weeks before the shootings, including that he “might go out in a blaze of glory” and that he was “having terrible thoughts.”
- Psychiatrist William Logan testified during the prosecution’s rebuttal that Kahler was doing projects on his parents’ Meriden farm in the weeks before the shootings. Logan interpreted Kahler’s involvement as a sign that his depression was not severe. “He’s functional, he’s working dusk ’til dawn. He’s doing good work,” Hanley said. “He’s got a list of things that he needs to get done, and he’s checking them off his list.”
- Kansas Bureau of Investigation agents said they found Kahler’s Ford Explorer packed with camping gear, a gun box, ammunition and a large store of food, along with a packed suitcase and a briefcase with important documents and maps. He was also carrying about $2,500 in cash on his person and in his vehicle. Hanley said this, along with his cold-weather attire despite unseasonably warm weather, indicated he was prepared for “flight.” KBI agents who seized everything Kahler was carrying when he was arrested the morning after the shootings testified that they found a fully loaded clip of .223-caliber ammunition, a fully loaded revolver on his hip, two knives and a flashlight. Defense attorney Haney said that equipment could very well have been used for recreation by Kahler, who friends, family and coworkers testified is an avid hunter and fisherman.
- Multiple witnesses and Kahler himself in a KBI interview said the drive from Meriden to Burlingame takes about an hour, which Hanley argued showed Kahler had time to premeditate the shootings.
- Dorothy Wight’s neighbors, Michelle Davidson and Trevor Gibson, testified that Kahler drove around the area before parking and walking away from his car. “He doesn’t just pull up in the driveway,” Hanley said. “He’s got the element of surprise.” The couple’s testimony helped establish that the SUV they saw belonged to Kahler and also set out a time frame for Kahler’s arrival and departure from the area.
- Bloodstain examiner Roger Butler and forensic pathologist Erik Mitchell established that Kahler fired seven shots with seven hits. Butler confirmed that Kahler’s blood was found in the stairwell of Wight’s home. Mitchell said six of the seven shots fired that night were fatal. Hanley argued that Kahler had intended targets when he entered Wight’s home and “carried out his plan to perfection." Hanley also argued Kahler “tracked” the women through the house. “They were like prey during a hunt,” she said, referring to Kahler’s interest in hunting and fishing.
- Hanley told the court Kahler chose to “spare” his son, Sean, though the question of whether Sean Kahler escaped or was spared was not examined further by either the prosecution or defense.
- Hanley also referred to testimony from Dan Pingelton, Karen Kahler’s attorney, who said divorce proceedings were coming to a close when the shootings happened and that a trial had been scheduled. “He was going to lose all control over the situation unless he took action,” Hanley said.
The prosecution did not devote much of its closing statement to Kahler’s guilt, as Hanley argued it was “obvious.” She cited Sean Kahler’s eyewitness testimony and dying declarations from Lauren Kahler, heard on a Life Alert recording played for the court. She also reminded the jury of testimony from Cindy Harris, whom Dorothy Wight called just after the shootings, and from a paramedic who was told by Wight that Kraig Kahler had been the shooter.
Hanley said the steps Kahler took just before he entered Wight’s home were enough to indicate that the shootings were premeditated.
“It’s the murder of an organized, prepared individual,” she said.
Haney, the defense attorney, snapped two pencils in half during his closing argument to illustrate that Kahler had reached his breaking point when the shootings happened.
"Kraig Kahler on Nov. 28 was not in his right mind," Haney said. "No person in their right mind could do these things."
Amanda Vogelsberg projected just one word in capital letters onto a large screen in the courtroom as she began the defense’s closing argument: WHY.
The defense’s argument centered on Kahler’s mental breakdown after facing the stress of divorce. Vogelsberg and Haney sought to show that Kahler had been a model husband, father and employee before his marriage began to fall apart in January 2009.
“You take the worst day in your life, and you live that day in and day out for 11 months,” Vogelsberg said. “That is what Mr. Kahler faced after Jan. 1, 2009.”
Haney argued Kahler’s controlling and violent behavior began only after that date, when Karen Kahler and Sunny Reese, began their romantic relationship.
Reese, who testified Aug. 17 for the prosecution only, said Kraig Kahler knew about her relationship with his wife and proposed a threesome via text message. But once he realized Reese and his wife were falling in love, she said, he became abusive, and she grew increasingly concerned for Karen Kahler’s safety.
Kahler said in his interview with the KBI the morning of his arrest that he had allowed his wife to “experiment” just before the family moved to Columbia, thinking any fling she had would be short-lived.
Haney said in his closing argument that Reese was “a selfish troublemaker” who was “bent on destroying (the Kahlers’) marriage” using an “intense campaign to woo Karen.”
Reese testified earlier that while she did communicate and take trips with Karen Kahler, it was in an attempt to protect her. Reese said she loved Karen Kahler "too much” and that she wanted her to be safe — "with or without me.”
Haney also cited the testimony of psychiatrist Stephen Peterson, who told the court Kahler was “severely mentally impaired” when he went to Wight’s Burlingame home the night of the shootings and he “couldn’t refrain from doing what he did.” Peterson cited multiple interviews with Kahler and court documents, telling the court Kahler was unable to understand the emotional nuances of his wife’s relationship with Reese.
Haney acknowledged that Peterson’s practice partner, William Logan, had testified for the prosecution that Kahler’s depression wasn’t severe enough to prevent him from premeditating or forming an intent to kill his family. But he argued Logan hadn’t gone through nearly as much material on Kahler’s background, had interviewed Kahler just once and hadn’t done any psychological testing.
Before the shootings, Haney said, Kahler’s worst attributes were that he was too quiet and too polite, referring to testimony from former Columbia City Manager Bill Watkins and Michael Schmitz. Kahler was Schmitz's supervisor in Columbia Water and Light.
Haney pounded on a family album Karen Kahler had made, saying the candid shots inside were not the result of “Kraig Kahler’s lab experiment to create the perfect family.”
Vogelsberg said those photographs and the testimony of friends such as Don and Marina Coulter and Liz McAulay from Weatherford and Victor Holtorf from Kahler’s college days showed the Kahlers were “perfect” and “happy” before January 2009. She and Haney revisited those witnesses’ testimonies that they were “shocked,” “devastated” and “absolutely surprised” when the shootings happened.
Vogelsberg referenced testimony from Kahler’s parents, Wayne and Patricia Kahler, whom she called “good old country Kansas folk.” The Kahlers testified their son was a quiet boy growing up who did well in school, followed rules and was very intelligent.
Saying Kahler wasn’t a “Frankenstein monster,” Haney asked the jury to consider what Kahler’s state of mind was when the shootings happened, noting that everyone has a different breaking point.