LYNDON, Kan. — Stifled sobs could be heard throughout the Osage County District Court as family members spoke during Kraig Kahler’s sentencing hearing Tuesday morning.
Chief Judge Phillip Fromme upheld an Osage County jury’s Aug. 29 recommendation that Kahler be put to death.
In Kansas criminal cases, juries make sentencing recommendations that judges later consider in their final decision. Judges are not bound by those jury decisions, but no judge in the state has reversed a recommendation in a death penalty case since Kansas enacted the punishment in 1935.
Kahler was sentenced in the Nov. 28, 2009, shooting deaths of his daughters, Emily, 18, and Lauren Kahler, 16; his wife, Karen Kahler, 44; and her grandmother, Dorothy Wight, 89, in Burlingame.
Kraig Kahler's defense attorney, Tom Haney, said his client had chosen not to make a statement, but Fromme ordered Kahler to remain in the courtroom as victim statements were read.
Karen Kahler’s sister, Lynn Denton, choked up as she remembered her grandmother, nieces and sister.
“After I’m done here, I can go out and enjoy this beautiful, sunny day,” she said. “But I’d like to talk about Grandma for a minute.”
Family members in the spectator benches cried as Denton recalled growing up with Wight and watching Emily and Lauren Kahler mature into young women.
“Emily was a darling baby, and Karen was a natural mommy,” Denton said.
“Karen used to explain sometimes that she didn’t get Lauren,” she said of the Kahlers’ younger daughter. “I’d say, ‘Send her to me.’ I understand her completely.”
At one point, Denton turned to Haney.
“She was beautiful,” she said of Lauren Kahler, an allusion to comments made by Haney during his opening statements that Lauren was less attractive than her older sister.
Denton spoke of the frequent phone conversations she had with her sister, during which they spoke about “anything and everything and sometimes nothing for hours.”
“I still want to pick up the phone and call her,” she said, her voice strained. “Or when the phone rings, I want to hear her cheery voice saying, ‘Hi, sister!’”
Kraig Kahler was expressionless during most of Denton’s statement as he sat in an orange jumpsuit and ankle monitor. But twice, he briefly — and audibly — interjected, though what he said was unintelligible to those in the audience. His interruptions elicited sharp looks from Assistant Attorney General Amy Hanley.
Brenda Albright, office manager of the Kansas Attorney General’s Office Criminal Division, read a statement from Karen Kahler’s mother, Patricia Hetrick. Hetrick wrote that she was unable to come to the trial because of a recent knee replacement surgery.
“I lost three generations of loved ones in one fell swoop. I still replay that frightening night over and over in my mind. When I get to the end, I try so hard to rewrite it, but there’s no such option.
“How could such beautiful and promising lives be over?” Hetrick wrote in the statement.
Hanley listed aggravating factors the jury took into consideration when sentencing Kahler:
- Eyewitness testimony from Kahler’s 12-year-old son, Sean, who saw his mother shot and heard the gunshots that killed his sisters and great-grandmother.
- Life Alert and law enforcement recordings entered into evidence on which Lauren Kahler can be heard pleading for help after being shot.
- Testimony from bloodstain analysts that indicated Lauren Kahler was being followed by her father upstairs in Wight’s home when she was shot.
- Testimony from a forensic examiner that all four women’s gunshot wounds were not immediately life threatening and that they could still hear and see their surroundings, which Hanley called “serious mental anguish.”
“These facts constitute more than just mere speculation,” Hanley said.
But Haney said reversing the jury’s decision would be a “courageous act by a trial judge.”
He voiced a constitutional disagreement with a Kansas legal precedent that allows multiple deaths in a single incident to both qualify a capital murder charge and aggravate that same crime.
“It goes without saying, it’s bad law. It’s not well thought out,” Haney said of the 2008 Kansas Supreme Court case, State of Kansas v. Scott, which set the precedent.
Hanley and Osage County Prosecutor Brandon Jones shot frustrated glances at Haney as he further argued that none of the factors Hanley presented made the shootings a particularly heinous crime, repeatedly referring to events in witness testimony as “alleged.”
“What we heard on the Life Alert, disturbing as it was … does not make this heinous or cruel,” Haney said, referencing one of the state’s arguments.
“What about this case is particularly heinous, cruel or atrocious?” he asked. “The state gives a number of factors, and we respectfully submit none of them are supportive of the jury’s finding.”
Haney asked Fromme to consider the shootings relative to other cases, including kidnappings, prolonged torture, hate crimes and crimes of humiliation.
Custody of Kahler's son outstanding
Dorothy Wight’s son, Bob Wight, sat a few rows back in the spectator seats with other family members, as he had for quite a few days of the trial. He’s a pilot and lives in Wichita, but he takes care of Wight’s Burlingame home.
Wight said that with a large part of the legal proceedings surrounding the family’s tragedy concluded, only the question of who will get custody of Sean Kahler remains. Both the Dentons and the Kahlers are seeking custody of him. He's living with Lynn Denton but is still a ward of the state. Wight said he didn’t know when those proceedings would end.
Wight was one of the members of Karen Kahler's family who went to Columbia after the killings to pick up Karen’s belongings from her rental house. He talked about meeting a number of people who had known the Kahlers and being shown around Rock Bridge High School, which Emily and Lauren attended, and Rock Bridge Elementary, Sean’s school.
“All those people were just so nice,” he said. “Everybody was just so wonderful.”
He could often be seen smiling and laughing outside the courtroom, punctuating the somber mood of the proceedings.
“I made up my mind that I’m not going to let Kraig change my life,” Wight said. “Yes, it’s over with. I’m not going to let him ruin my life.”
Wight’s consistently upbeat demeanor did falter for a moment when he recalled the strain of the past two years.
“It’s been tough,” he said.
He said during holidays, the family gathers in Wichita rather than returning to Burlingame.
With Tuesday's sentencing, Kraig Kahler became the ninth person awaiting execution in Kansas. The Kansas Department of Corrections doesn't have a death row unit per se, said Public Information Officer Jan Lunsford, but Kahler is likely to be incarcerated at El Dorado Correctional Facility, a maximum-security prison about 30 miles east and slightly north of Wichita. Seven of the eight other inmates with capital sentences are incarcerated at El Dorado.
He will be placed in administrative segregation, which will isolate him from other inmates and prison staff. He will have one hour outdoors, five days per week, and even during these periods, a prison officer will stand no closer than 40 feet from him, Lunsford said.
He will receive meals through a slot in the door of his cell and will be shackled when escorted to the shower.