LYNDON, Kan. —James Kraig Kahler was sentenced to death by an Osage County jury Monday afternoon.
Kahler scratched his neck nervously as each juror was polled about his or her decision.
Karen Kahler's sister, Lynn Denton, dabbed at her eyes.
It was nearly the end of the three-week trial, which spilled over into a fourth week for the sentencing phase on Monday. Kahler's formal sentencing on a charge of aggravated burglary was set for October 11.
“If you find unanimously, beyond a reasonable doubt, that there are one or more aggravating circumstances, and they are not outweighed by mitigating circumstances, then you shall impose the sentence of death,” Prosecuting Attorney Brandon Jones said to the jury before the seven men and five women began their deliberations over the sentence. That process lasted an hour and 10 minutes.
Jones replayed audio from the night of Nov. 28, 2009, when Kraig Kahler, 48, former director of Columbia Water and Light, shot and killed his wife, Karen Kahler, 44; daughters, Emily, 18, and Lauren Kahler, 16; and his wife’s grandmother, Dorothy Wight, 89, in Wight’s Burlingame, Kan., home.
“I don’t want to die,” Lauren can be heard moaning, her voice recorded by a sheriff’s deputy’s microphone as she lay dying from her father’s gunshot wounds.
Wight’s screams echoed throughout the courtroom as her audio played next, recorded by her Life Alert monitor.
Most of the people present in the courtroom showed little emotion. Denton was comforted by a friend during Shawnee County District Coroner Erik Mitchell’s graphic descriptions of the family’s suffering, as documented through autopsies.
“This is not an instant death,” Mitchell said of the women’s mortal wounds.
Kraig Kahler sat between his attorneys, quiet and inexpressive.
Jones, along with Assistant Attorney General Amy Hanley, asked the jury to consider the two main aggravating circumstances of the case — that Kahler knowingly killed more than one person and that he did so in an especially heinous or cruel manner.
Defense attorney Thomas Haney argued that although the crime committed was heinous, “there are other murders that are much worse.”
During cross-examination, Haney asked Mitchell about his experience performing autopsies on victims of torture, arson and other brutal crimes.
A few members of the jury shot frustrated glances at Haney as he proceeded with this line of questioning, which included asking Mitchell, a forensic pathologist, if he knew how many rounds of bullets were in the magazine Kahler used in the murder.
Hanley sprang from her seat after Haney asked Mitchell, “which death is more heinous – a woman tied to a tree, or this case.”
“Objection,” Hanley said. “Improper and irrelevant.”
After questioning Mitchell, Haney, along with co-counsel Amanda Vogelsberg, called Stephen Peterson, a partner in the Logan & Peterson psychiatry practice in Kansas City, to testify that Kahler was clinically depressed before and after the shootings.
“He’s not faking it,” Peterson said. “Mr. Kahler has significant, major depression.”
Peterson went on to stress the significance of Kraig Kahler’s son, Sean, in determining the verdict.
Sean Kahler, 12, was the only survivor of the November 2009 Burlingame murders.
“At some point,” Peterson said, “[Sean] may very well need to find his father… to try and understand what happened.
“He may need his father to apologize,” he said.
The defense also called Kraig’s parents, Patricia and Wayne Kahler, to the stand.
Patricia Kahler recalled Kraig’s childhood, his love for the outdoors and his relationship with his son.
Jones asked Patricia Kahler whether she still loved her son.
“I have always wondered how a person can forgive someone for doing something as bad as this,” she said. “I could not carry, for the rest of my life, any hate for Kraig. I can’t do that.”
When asked if she would like to see her son receive the death penalty — instead of life in prison — she paused, seemingly deep in thought, and then sighed.
“I don’t want either one,” she said.
Wayne Kahler, as softspoken as his wife, was the last to take the stand before the court adjourned for lunch.
Vogelsberg asked Wayne Kahler about Kraig and Sean’s relationship, and how the death penalty would affect Sean.
“They were so close,” he said, fighting back tears. “It would be terrible.”
The last death penalty imposed by a Kansas jury was for the 1996 murder of Mary Anne and Mary Elizabeth Pusch at the hands of Michael Marsh, although the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the decision in June 2006.
The state has not executed anyone since 1965.