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Kahler to be formally sentenced Tuesday

Monday, October 10, 2011 | 4:34 p.m. CDT; updated 8:33 p.m. CDT, Monday, October 10, 2011

LYNDON, Kan. — Former Columbia Water and Light director James Kraig Kahler is scheduled to be formally sentenced Tuesday.

He was found guilty of capital murder Aug. 25 by an Osage County, Kan., jury, which recommended he be put to death.

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Chief Judge Phillip Fromme will decide whether the evidence presented during the trial validates the jury's recommendation. If he doesn't think the death penalty is warranted, Fromme will use the alternative sentence of life in prison without parole for 50 years, also known as the "hard 50."

The sentencing phase of Kahler’s trial began Aug. 29, and, after hearing from one witness for the prosecution and another for the defense, the jury took just an hour and 10 minutes to recommend the death penalty for Kahler.

Kahler was convicted in the Nov. 28, 2009, shooting deaths of his daughters, Emily, 18, and Lauren Kahler, 16; wife, Karen Kahler, 44; and his wife's grandmother Dorothy Wight, 89, in Burlingame, Kan.

Lynn Denton, Karen Kahler's sister, said Monday it would take a long time to heal, no matter what happens Tuesday.

"For the magnitude of the loss that we have, I don't think anything could actually feel like closure," she said after a lengthy pause. "In relative terms, I don't think it's ever going to really heal."

If Fromme validates the jury's recommendation, it is unlikely that Kahler would be executed anytime soon. The Kansas Supreme Court must automatically review his case. That process has postponed executions in other capital cases.

Kansas hasn't executed a convicted murder in the 17 years since it reinstated capital punishment in 1994, and there's a good chance it won't before marking the 50th anniversary of the state's last executions, by hanging, in June 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." 

The Sunflower State has a history of ambivalence toward the death penalty, abolishing it in 1907, only to reinstate it in 1935 after a spate of bloody robberies of Midwestern banks. After a U.S. Supreme Court decision invalidated the 1930s statute, supporters of capital punishment waited more than two decades for enactment of a new law.

"The justices and the people come out of that and look on the death penalty very carefully," said Richard Dieter, executive director of the Washington-based Death Penalty Information Center, which opposes capital punishment. "There's not quite the rush on executions."

Defense attorney Thomas Haney noted that no Kansas trial court judge has rejected a jury's recommendation in a capital case since the law was reinstated.

Michael Rushford, president and CEO of the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, a Sacramento, Calif.-based victims' rights group that supports capital punishment, said Kraig Kahler's case is "clear cut" enough that his appeals should move relatively quickly through state and federal courts, particularly because Congress limited federal courts' review of capital cases in 1996.

"It's a pretty simple case," Rushford said. "He can't say he wasn't there."

The record in Kansas capital cases since 1994 has varied.

A dozen men have been sentenced to die for their killings, but three have had those sentences overturned through the courts and are now serving life in prison. In a fourth case, the state Supreme Court must decide whether a capital murder defendant should be resentenced over questions about his attorney's work.

Gary Kleypas, convicted of raping and killing a Pittsburg State University student in 1996, has no execution date approaching. The court is considering issues about his death sentence for the third time, with attorneys still preparing legal briefs.

Legal briefs are still being prepared for six other men's cases, with their death sentences dating from November 2002 to March 2009. In May, the state Supreme Court heard the case of Scott Cheever, sentenced to die for the 2005 shooting of Greenwood County's sheriff during a drug raid, but it has yet to rule.

The Kansas attorney general's office declined to comment about the length of time involved in death penalty appeals or about Kahler's case, because he hasn't been sentenced.

But Rebecca Woodman, a state public defender who handles appeals in capital cases, said she doubts Kahler's case will move quickly. Defense attorneys have a greater burden in investigating their clients' cases on appeals that lawyers in non-capital cases, she said, making death penalty cases more complex.

"The state has to conduct the same type of review," she said. "It's just much more complicated than other murder cases."

And, even as he saw Kahler's case as straightforward, Rushford acknowledged that states' appellate courts can slow down the resolution of capital cases and delay executions, sometimes simply by giving attorneys years to finish filing legal briefs.

"The political environment in a state and the makeup of a supreme court can make a lot of difference," Rushford said.

Critics of capital punishment believe delays in resolving appeals can work in their favor, prompting states to consider whether the death penalty is worth keeping. The cost associated with appeals in capital cases was an issue for Kansas legislators in recent years, though bills to repeal the death penalty law failed in the state Senate in 2005, 2009 and 2010.

Dieter noted that New Jersey reinstated the death penalty in 1982, had no executions in 25 years and abolished capital punishment in 2007. New Mexico executed only one criminal in 30 years before abolishing capital punishment in 2009.

"It does sometimes add up, when states don't see it going anywhere," Dieter said.

Missourian reporter Sangeeta Shastry contributed to this report.


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