Sunday, October 9, 2011
Death seen as likely sentence in 4 Kan. killings
By: JOHN HANNA
10/09/11 2:30 PM
A man convicted in Kansas of killing his estranged wife and three other family members appears likely to be sentenced to death this week, but if he is, years would pass before a team of officers would escort him into the state's execution chamber and strap him to the gurney.
A jury in Osage County District Court took only two hours to conclude in August that James Kraig Kahler was guilty of capital murder and less than an hour to recommend lethal injection as his punishment. But the Kansas Supreme Court must automatically review his case, and in other capital cases, that process has postponed executions.
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.
An AP Monday Focus
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."
A sentencing hearing for Kahler, 48, is scheduled for Tuesday morning before District Judge Phillip Fromme, who must decide whether the jury's recommendation for a death sentence is supported by the evidence. But, as defense attorney Thomas Haney noted, no Kansas trial court judge has rejected a jury's recommendation in a capital case since the law was reinstated.
Kahler, who goes by his middle name, is a former utilities director in Weatherford, Texas, and Columbia, Mo., moving back to Kansas to live on his parents' farm outside Topeka after losing the job in Missouri in 2009. According to testimony during Kahler's trial, his wife, Karen, was having a sexual relationship with a Weatherford, Texas, woman, and seeking a divorce. Kahler's attorneys contend he snapped mentally.
The victims were Karen Kahler, 44; her grandmother, Dorothy Wight, 89, and the Kahlers' daughters, Emily, 18, and Lauren, 16. A psychiatrist testified during Kraig Kahler's trial that he was upset with his daughters for siding with their mother and believed Wight had a duty to push Karen Kahler to stay in their marriage.
The shootings occurred the weekend after Thanksgiving 2009 at Wight's home outside Burlingame, about 30 miles southwest of Topeka. The Kahlers' son, Sean, then 10, was at the home but escaped without physical injury and testified that he saw his father shoot his mother. Law enforcement officers and emergency medical personnel said Wight and Lauren Kahler identified Kraig Kahler as the gunman before dying.
Michael Rushford, president and chief executive officer of the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, a Sacramento, Calif., 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.