Lyndon — Prosecutors in the capital murder trial of a man accused of shooting his estranged wife, their two teenage daughters and the wife’s grandmother in northeast Kansas have shown jurors grisly photos of the victims after a coroner described their shootings as “execution-style,” done with ammunition effective at causing damage.
The display of the photos in the Osage County courtroom Friday caused a few spectators to gasp and one elderly woman to cover her mouth and whisper “God!” But defendant James Kraig Kahler did not look at them.
Forensic pathologist Erik Mitchell, coroner in neighboring Shawnee County, was the last witness prosecutors expected to call before formally resting their case Monday. Defense attorneys are to begin presenting evidence shortly afterward.
Kahler, 48, is a former city utilities director in Weatherford, Texas, and Columbia, Mo., who lost his job in Missouri in 2009 amid a contentious divorce, then returned to Kansas to live with his parents outside Topeka. The shootings occurred the weekend after Thanksgiving 2009 in the home of his estranged wife’s grandmother, just outside Burlingame, a town of about 930 residents some 20 miles south of Topeka.
Defense attorneys contend Kahler snapped mentally because of his pending divorce and because his wife was having a sexual relationship with a Weatherford, Texas, woman. Prosecutors have presented evidence that Kahler consented to the affair as it began in 2008.
Prosecutors, who also have presented evidence tying Kahler to the murder scene, contend the killings were premeditated and are seeking the death penalty.
“What we have here is execution-style,” Mitchell testified, though none of the victims was shot in the head.
The victims were Karen Kahler, 44; her grandmother, Dorothy Wight, 89; and the Kahlers’ daughters, Emily, 18, and Lauren, 16.
Law enforcement officers and emergency medical personnel have said Wight and Lauren Kahler identified Kraig Kahler as the gunman before dying.
The Kahlers’ son, Sean, now 12, also was at the scene but escaped without physical injury. He testified earlier in the trial that he saw his father shoot his mother.
Authorities also haven’t found the murder weapon, a .223-caliber assault rifle. They found seven casings for .223-caliber shells at the murder scene and a box for a .223-caliber rifle in the back of Kahler’s sports-utility vehicle after his capture.
Mitchell testified that a .223-caliber bullet is designed so that it is stable in flight but once it hits a body, it begins to tumble and cause tissue damage. Though Karen Kahler and her daughters each was shot twice, in each case one of the shots could have been mortal, Mitchell testified. Wight was shot once.
“It’s designed specifically to transfer all its energy to the target,” Mitchell said of the semi-automatic rifle. “I find, personally, that it does so very effectively.”
Karen Kahler was shot in the leg, shattering an upper leg bone, and then in the back, damaging her liver, stomach and diaphragm, Mitchell testified. Wight was shot in the left arm, and the single bullet fired at her continued into her abdomen.
Mitchell testified that Emily Kahler was shot in the breast and back. He said she would have survived the first wound if it had been the only one, but the second one struck her spinal court and likely paralyzed her instantly. Lauren Kahler was shot in the back and buttocks, and the bullets severely damaging her liver and intestines.
A Kansas Bureau of Investigation firearms examiner, Zachary Carr, testified that all seven shell casings found at Wight’s home were fired by the same rifle, but he couldn’t determine from his tests whether the cartridges had been cycled through a rifle magazine found in the ditch near where Kahler was arrested.
Prosecutors had Carr show off a .223-caliber rifle, borrowed from a crime lab in Iowa, that was the same model as the one they believe was used in the crimes. But defense attorneys objected when Osage County Attorney Brandon Jones twice referred to it as a “weapon.”
Defense attorneys are expected to raise questions about whether Kahler was too mentally ill at the time for the crimes to be premeditated or intentional.