By JOHN HANNA
LYNDON, Kan. – The capital murder trial for a former Missouri city official accused of shooting four family members in northeast Kansas could last three weeks or longer, with some evidence expected to deal with how his estranged wife’s alleged relationship with another woman affected his mental health just before her death and the other slayings.
Prosecutors began presenting their case Monday in Osage County District Court against 48-year-old James Kraig Kahler. They’re seeking the death penalty in connection with the killings, which occurred during the weekend after Thanksgiving 2009 just outside Burlingame, about 20 miles south of Topeka, in the home of his estranged wife’s grandmother.
The killings came less than three months after Kahler was asked to resign as water director in Columbia, Mo., amid a contentious divorce and facing a domestic assault charge stemming from an altercation with his wife. One court filing in the Kansas capital murder case said Kahler was upset over what the document described as a lesbian affair involving his wife.
Defense attorneys have said in court filings that they’ll present evidence showing that a Weatherford, Texas, woman broke up the Kahlers’ marriage, and they’re expected to argue that the relationship caused Kahler to suffer a mental breakdown. The Kahlers lived in Weatherford before Kahler took the Missouri job in 2008.
Among the first witnesses scheduled to testify Monday are Kahler’s 12-year-old son, Sean, who was inside the Burlingame home but was not physically injured when the shootings occurred. Prosecutors and defense attorneys have picked nine men and six women to serve as the 12 jurors and three alternates for the trial.
“It could be as short as two weeks or as long as more than three,” presiding District Judge Phillip Fromme told jurors after they were chosen.
The victims of the shootings were Kahler’s estranged wife, Karen, 44, her grandmother, Dorothy Wight, 89, and the Kahlers’ two daughters, Emily, 18, and Lauren, 16. Their deaths are covered by a single count of capital murder because Kansas law allows the death penalty for multiple murders arising from a single “scheme or course of conduct.”
As an alternative to capital murder, the state also has filed four counts of first-degree murder, carrying a sentence of life in prison, with no chance of parole for 50 years. Kahler also faces one count of aggravated burglary because, prosecutors contend, he broke into Wight’s home.
Assistant Attorney General Amy Hanley declined to comment about the case before the trial began. Thomas Haney, a Topeka attorney representing Kahler, said while his lawyers will present evidence about Kahler’s mental state before the shootings, it’s not their only line of defense.
“The state’s going to have to prove everything,” he said.
The state’s list of witnesses includes Sunny Reece, the Weatherford, Texas, woman referenced in court documents has having a relationship with Kahler’s wife. A July 2010 story in the Weatherford Democrat described the two women as friends and noted that Reese organized a 5-kilometer run in honor of Karen Kahler and the other victims, raising more than $7,300 for a local program helping domestic violence victims. A November 2010 story in the Columbia, Mo., Tribune, described Reese as Karen Kahler’s best friend.
There was no answer at a telephone number listed in Weatherford, Texas, under Reese’s name in an Internet directory. She did not respond to an email or message left at a business number seeking comment.
In a November 2009 affidavit filed by prosecutors, they said Karen Kahler had filed for a divorce from James Kahler in January 2009 because of “marital difficulties relating to Karen’s lesbian relationship,” without naming the other woman.
But Reece was named in a July 2011 court filing in Kansas by prosecutors, objecting to defense plans to present evidence that Reese “gives the appearance of a serial home wrecker” and had an “intense” relationship with Karen Kahler. Prosecutors protested that “character attacks” on Reece are irrelevant as evidence in the murder case. A response filed the next day by defense attorneys said prosecutors raised the issue of Reece’s alleged involvement with Karen Kahler by mentioning the lesbian relationship in their affidavit.
The affidavit is sealed, but the defense attorneys’ filing quoted the portion of it mentioning the relationship. The July 2011 filings also were under seal, but the defense asked Fromme to unseal them, and he did.
Haney said defense attorneys were able to subpoena Reece themselves, but she has not yet talked to them.