LYNDON, Kan. – A jury recommended Monday that a Kansas man be sentenced to death for killing four family members in November 2009.
The jury returned its recommendation after hearing more testimony about 48-year-old James Kraig Kahler and his state of mind at the time of the fatal shootings. The judge — who is not bound the recommendation — set sentencing for Oct. 11 in Osage County District Court.
Kahler was convicted Thursday of four counts of capital murder in the killings of 44-year-old Karen Kahler; her grandmother, Dorothy Wight, 89; and the Kahlers' daughters, Emily, 18, and Lauren, 16. The Kahlers' son, Sean, now 12, was not threatened during the rampage and testified at trial that he saw his father shoot his mother.
The victims' family members read a short statement outside the courthouse after the verdict, saying all relatives "still have a lot of healing to do" and that the trial didn't restore their relatives' lives.
"For the past year and a half, we've had a dark cloud around us that we associated with this trial," said Lynn Denton, Karen Kahler's sister. "Now that it's over, the cloud is still there.
"The cloud wasn't about the trial, it is about our loss."
The defense argued for life in prison, saying Kahler was out of control emotionally and suffering deep depression when he went from room to room at Wight's home in Burlingame, shooting the four victims with an assault rifle.
Defense attorney Thomas Haney declined to speak to reporters after the verdict was read. None of the jurors spoke as they left the courthouse.
Prosecutors said it was difficult to read anything into the speed at which jurors reached their decision, taking just 55 minutes to return. Osage County attorney Brandon Jones and Assistant Attorney General Amy Hanley said jurors had the evidence about the highly publicized murders "on their minds for several weeks now."
"We believe it is the appropriate verdict," Hanley said.
A former city utilities director in Weatherford, Texas, and Columbia, Mo., Kahler had lost the latter job after his deteriorating mental health caused his work to suffer. He moved back to Kansas just weeks before the killings to live with his parents outside Topeka.
Karen Kahler had filed for divorce in Columbia, Mo., in January 2009, after 23 years of marriage, amid her affair with Sunny Reese, who'd been a fellow fitness trainer at a gym in Weatherford, Texas. Reese testified in court, and the defense contended that the two women's relationship also had contributed to Kahler's mental state.
Under Kansas law, Kahler's mental illness was a defense only if it prevented him from forming the intent to kill or acting with premeditation. Prosecutors presented evidence showing he had been upset with each of the victims and targeted them one by one on the Saturday night following Thanksgiving 2009.
Coroner Erik Mitchell testified during the trial that the four victims were alive after they were shot and that none had been shot in the head.
But prosecutors said Kahler, keeping with the stereotype of his profession, was solving what he perceived as a problem. In closing arguments, they told jurors that Kahler was depressed but was also fueled by anger and decided murder was the way to eliminate the problem of a no-longer-perfect life.
Before the jury began its 55 minutes of deliberation Monday on a sentence, the defense read the panel members two notes from Sean Kahler asking that his father be spared execution.
"I do not want my dad to receive the death penalty because it would be hard on my grandparents," the first note said.
The second note said, "I do not want my whole family gone."
Kahler did not speak after the jury's recommendation was announced Monday. Bailiffs escorted him back to the jail where he was held during the trial. He will remain at the jail until the formal sentencing in October.
Karen Kahler's brother, Bill Hetrick, said outside the courthouse, "This is not a day of winners."
The case is State of Kansas v. James Kraig Kahler, No. 09-CR-270 in Osage County District Court.
Kansas courts website for Kahler case: http://www.kscourts.org/State-v-Kahler
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