LYNDON, Kan. — James Kraig Kahler was sentenced to death by lethal injection by an Osage County jury Monday afternoon.
Kahler smirked as the court rendered its decision, one of the few times during the trial that the defendant showed any emotion.
He then scratched his neck nervously as each juror was polled on his or her decision.
Karen Kahler's sister, Lynn Denton, dabbed at her eyes as family and friends hugged her after the jury had been dismissed.
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 sentencing for aggravated burglary related to the break-in at the home of Dorothy Wight, where the murders occurred, was set for Oct. 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.
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, Wight, 89, at her Burlingame, Kan., home.
“I don’t want to die,” Lauren can be heard moaning, her voice recorded by a 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.
Vogelsberg reread Sean’s statements to the jury during closing arguments.
“I do not want my dad to receive the death penalty because it will be hard on my grandparents,” she quoted him as saying, as well as “I do not want my whole family gone.”
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.”
During closing arguments, Haney reiterated the gravity of the jury’s upcoming decision.
“There is nothing simple about putting a man to death,” he said. “This is as complicated and as heart-wrenching as it gets.”
Yet the jury took only an hour and 10 minutes to reach its decision, declaring that the aggravating circumstances outweighed the mitigating circumstances and with that decision, sentenced Kahler to death.
After the sentencing, Kahler’s parents looked toward the ground as their son walked past them, led away in handcuffs. No one made eye contact. Wayne Kahler put his hand on his wife’s back and escorted her slowly out of the courtroom.
Hanley and Jones spoke on the courthouse steps, saying they were “very pleased” with the verdict.
“We know there were four lives lost, and this [decision] doesn’t change that,” Hanley said.
Denton, along with her brother, Bill Hetrick, gave a brief statement a few minutes later.
“For the past year and a half,” Denton said, “there has been a dark cloud over our family."
“That cloud is still there, and the verdict and sentencing don’t bring our family back,” she said.
The family declined to comment further.
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.