LYNDON, Kan. – A psychiatrist testified during a sentencing hearing that a Kansas man had lost control mentally on the night he shot and killed four family members in November 2009.
James Kraig Kahler was convicted Friday on four counts of capital murder in the deaths of his estranged wife, their two teenage daughters and his wife’s grandmother at the older woman’s home in Burlingame. Kahler’s attorneys said he committed the crimes after his spouse took a lesbian lover and filed for divorce.
Jurors began hearing testimony Monday on whether Kahler should be sentenced to death or spend life in prison. The jury must decide unanimously that Kahler should receive the death penalty.
The Topeka Capital-Journal reports that defense psychiatrist Stephen Peterson testified Kahler was suffering from severe, major depression when he shot the victims.
“To me, it sounded like the actions of someone who completely lost control,” Peterson said. “He had shot the people he loved the most.”
The victims of the shootings were Karen Kahler, 44; her grandmother, Dorothy Wight, 89; and the Kahlers’ daughters, Emily, 18, and Lauren, 16. Kraig and Karen Kahler’s son, Sean, now 12, was at the scene but wasn’t threatened and escaped without physical injuries.
Defense attorneys contend he was severely depressed and snapped under the strain of his crumbling family and professional lives. Kahler, 48, a former city utilities director in Weatherford, Texas, and Columbia, Mo., had lost the latter job after his deteriorating mental health caused his work to suffer, and he moved back to Kansas just weeks before the killings to live with his parents outside Topeka.
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, never missing a shot.
Coroner Erik Mitchell testified that the four victims were alive after they were shot and that none had been shot in the head.
“I would regard (shooting someone in the head) as much more humane rather than people lying around, bleeding out and aware of what was going on,” Mitchell said.
Osage County prosecutor Brandon Jones told jurors to think about the victims when deciding Kahler’s sentence.
“Think about whether these victims suffered serious anguish,” Jones said.
Defense attorney Tom Haney said jurors should keep in mind that Kahler didn’t have a criminal history. Kahler was charged with battery of his wife in Missouri at the time of the shooting. The charge was later dropped.
Haney’s arguments throughout the trial was that his client was suffering mentally at the time of the shooting as his life unwound.
“In this state, we don’t kill the mentally ill,” Haney told the jurors.