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Archive for Wednesday, August 24, 2011

End draws near for trial of Osage County man accused of killing his family

August 24, 2011, 8:16 a.m. Updated August 25, 2011, 12:16 a.m.

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— A Kansas man accused of killing four family members was depressed because of his pending divorce and his wife's lesbian affair, but it wasn't severe enough to prevent him from considering his actions before and during the shootings, a psychiatrist testified Wednesday during the man's capital murder trial.

Prosecutors are seeking the death penalty against James Kraig Kahler, 48, who is charged with killing his wife, their two teenage daughters and the wife's grandmother. They were shot the weekend after Thanksgiving 2009 at the grandmother's home just outside Burlingame, a small town south of Topeka.

Attorneys are scheduled to make closing statements to jurors Thursday, with deliberations beginning shortly afterward. If jurors convict Kahler of capital murder, they'll resume hearing evidence and deliberate again over whether to recommend a death sentence.

Defense lawyers contend Kahler snapped mentally under the stress of his divorce and his wife's sexual relationship with another woman. He'd moved back to Kansas to live with his parents outside Topeka weeks before the murders, having once been utilities director in both Weatherford, Texas, and Columbia, Mo.

But prosecutors portray Kahler as calculating and cold-blooded, walking methodically through the murder scene-home, picking off his victims one by one without missing a shot from his assault rifle. The state attempted to bolster its case with the testimony of Dr. William Logan, a Kansas City, Mo., psychiatrist who examined Kahler in March.

"My conclusion was that he was depressed but retained the ability to premeditate," Logan testified. "I would not classify this as snapping."

Prosecutors called Logan to rebut some of the testimony earlier by Logan's own professional partner, Dr. Stephen Peterson, as a defense witness. Peterson said Kahler was so severely depressed that he couldn't control his behavior.

Kahler himself did not testify, but the defense's final witness Wednesday was a longtime friend, Victor Holtorf, of Fort Collins, Colo., who said Kahler sounded "hollow" in a telephone call shortly before Thanksgiving 2009, and said Kahler's mental health had been declining for months.

Defense attorneys say Kahler's deteriorating mental health caused his work to suffer, leading to the loss of his last city job, in Columbia, Mo. Holtorf said Kahler "was under a lot of pressure and a lot of stress.

"Sometimes people snap," he said.

As for the killings, Holtorf said, "Kraig wouldn't have done that — the Kraig I knew."

Prosecutors say Kahler, who goes by his middle name, killed his wife, 44-year-old Karen Kahler; 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. The Kahlers' son, Sean, now 12, escaped without physical injury. He testified that he saw his father shoot his mother.

Logan also said Kraig Kahler told him in their three-hour interview in March that he was upset with his daughters for siding with their mother after she filed for divorce in January 2009, amid her affair. Logan testified that Kahler believed Wight had a responsibility to push his wife to stay in the marriage.

Logan said Kahler was depressed but still could make choices about what he was doing and form the intent to kill his victims — the key issues under the Kansas law in determining whether a defendant is too mentally ill to be held responsible for the crimes.

In most states, defendants can be acquitted of a crime if a mental illness or defect prevented them from understanding that what they did was wrong or criminal, or if they couldn't control impulses to commit wrongdoing. Some legal scholars say Kansas' standard makes it more difficult for defendants to prevail when they attribute their actions to mental problems.

"Almost every person, even seriously mentally ill people, intend their criminal acts," said Christopher Slobogin, a professor of both law and psychiatry at Vanderbilt University. "If their guy pulled the trigger, then you can presume he intended to do it."

Also, Slobogin said, "If it's a murder, the feeling on the part of many jurors is that the person should feel the condemnation of society."

Logan's planned testimony inspired objections from defense attorneys before the trial began because of his partnership with Peterson. Both testified they've never been on opposite sides of the same case before but weren't communicating about Kahler's case.

In questioning Logan, defense attorney Thomas Haney highlighted some incorrect factual statements about Kahler's history that Logan attributed to him and even some typos. Haney's questions also pointed out that Peterson had more interviews with Kahler and that Peterson did psychiatric tests that Logan didn't do.

But Peterson also reported that Kahler tried "manipulation" and tailoring answers to help his defense. Logan labeled Kahler "cynical."

"He doesn't trust people, and he wants to remain in control," Logan testified.

Logan said Kahler dated five women in the eight months before the crimes out of "a need to be with somebody" and stopped taking the first anti-depression medication prescribed for him because of its sexual side effects.

Also, Logan testified that Kahler related how, once after his arrest, when his parents suggested he wasn't making good decisions, Kahler replied, "At least I get results."


The case is State of Kansas v. James Kraig Kahler, No. 09-CR-270 in Osage County District Court.

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