Lyndon — As his attorneys told it, James Kraig Kahler was so distraught his wife of 23 years was leaving him and had fallen for another woman that he snapped. He lost his job and self-control, and in a fit of madness, killed his wife, their two teenage daughters and his wife's grandmother.
The jurors at his trial saw it otherwise, though, and deliberated for just two hours Thursday before finding the 48-year-old Kahler guilty of capital murder, for which he could be executed. They apparently believed the prosecutors' version of events: that Kahler, an avid hunter, planned the killings with the precision of the engineer he is, going room-to-room through with an assault rifle stalking his prey, and shooting seven times and never missing.
Kahler, who goes by his middle name, showed no emotion as the verdict was read in Osage County District Court. He glanced briefly at the jurors as the judge asked each whether they agreed with the verdict: guilty of capital murder, four counts of first-degree murder, and a count of aggravated burglary, for barging into the Burlingame home where he killed his family members on Thanksgiving weekend, 2009.
The seven men and five women of the jury will return to court Monday to hear additional evidence before they decide whether to recommend that Kahler be executed.
Defense attorney Thomas Haney said the only deal the state would offer his legal team involved him pleading guilty to capital murder.
"They wouldn't allow anything else, and so by going to trial, we're in exactly where we were, based on their offer, plus we have appeal rights," Haney said after the verdict.
Assistant Attorney General Amy Hanley said she, the other members of the prosecution team, and the brother and sister of Kahler's wife, Karen Kahler, would not comment until after he's sentenced.
Corinne Clark, whose mother was related by marriage to Karen Kahler's grandmother, Dorothy Wight, said she was grateful to the jury for its verdict. The 76-year-old resident of Topeka, 20 miles north of Burlingame, sat through several days of testimony.
"I didn't see any other outcome. This was what we'd hoped for, the one thing we'd prayed for," Clark said.
Karen Kahler filed for divorce in Columbia, Mo., in January 2009, after 23 years of marriage, after she began having an affair with a woman who had been a fellow fitness trainer at a gym in Weatherford, Texas.
Kraig Kahler was a successful engineer and had directed the city utility department in Weatherford before taking a similar job in Columbia, Mo. He lost that job while his marriage was crumbling, and moved in with his parents in Kansas in the weeks before the shootings.
Prosecutors say on the night of the killings, Kahler took care to park his car down the street from his wife's grandmother's home so as not to draw attention. He waited until dark, then entered the home and without saying a word, shot his 44-year-old wife. He didn't threaten his son, who is now 12, but he shot his daughters, 18-year-old Emily and 16-year-old Lauren, and Wight, who was 89.
Law enforcement officers and emergency medical personnel said that before dying, Wight and Lauren Kahler identified Kraig Kahler as the gunman. The Kahlers' son Sean, now 12, testified that he saw his father shoot his mother before he escaped the scene without physical injury.
"What happens when someone who's rigid is put under too much pressure?" Haney said, breaking a pencil in front of jurors. "They snap."
According to testimony, Kraig Kahler was angry with his daughters because he believed they'd sided with their mother in the divorce. Wight was a target, prosecutors said, because Kraig Kahler believed she had a duty to push his wife to stay in the marriage.
The trial included partners in a Kansas City, Mo., psychiatric office testified on opposite sides of the case about Kahler's mental health.
One said Kahler was so severely depressed that he wasn't thinking rationally and couldn't control his behavior at the time of the killings. The other said Kahler's depression wasn't serious enough to prevent him from forming the intent to kill or making conscious decisions about what he did.
Kansas law says a mentally ill defendant still is legally responsible for a crime, unless his illness or mental defect prevented him forming an intent to commit the crime and, in the case of capital or first-degree murder, acting with premeditation. Some legal scholars say the standard — different than the one used in all but a handful of states — makes it more difficult for a defendant to prevail.
Prosecutors pointed to statements Kraig Kahler made to authorities and psychiatrists after his arrest to show that, though fueled by anger, he'd been calculating in his actions.
According to testimony, he described his daughters as "rotting corpses" and said he could have taken out law enforcement officers if he'd wanted. And once, jurors heard, when his parents told him he wasn't making good decisions, he said, "At least I get results."
"His family is supposed to be perfect. When they're no longer perfect, he kills them — he eliminates a problem," Hanley told jurors. "He carried out his plan to perfection. He got his results."