Kansas Supreme Court denies Kahler’s appeal of death sentence

James Kraig Kahler. File photo.

The Kansas Supreme Court issued an opinion today that James Kraig Kahler’s arguments in his appeal of his death sentence did not warrant overturning his convictions or death sentence.

According to a Supreme Court press release, the majority of the court affirmed Kahler’s Osage County District Court jury trial convictions of aggravated burglary and capital murder for fatally shooting his wife, Karen Kahler, his wife’s grandmother, Dorothy Wight, and his two teenage daughters, Emily and Lauren. The crimes occurred  Nov. 28, 2009, at Wight’s home at Burlingame, Kan.

Kahler was sentenced to death by District Court Judge Phillip Fromme in October 2011.

“The decision today affirms the conviction and death sentence based on an Osage County jury’s findings and moves this case forward one more step,” Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt said.

Kraig Kahler had raised 10 issues on appeal, including allegations of misconduct by the prosecutor and trial judge, challenges to the instructions given to the jury, and an argument the death penalty is unconstitutional when applied to a person who has a severe mental illness at the time he or she committed a crime. None of Kahler’s arguments convinced the majority of the court to overturn his convictions or death sentence.

The majority held that the prosecutor did not commit an error by raising an objection during Kahler’s attorney’s closing argument. Although the majority found that the trial judge committed errors during the trial, the majority held that none of the errors affected the trial’s outcome and, therefore, the errors did not justify reversing either the guilty verdict or the death sentence. The majority also reaffirmed the constitutionality of a Kansas statute that eliminated the insanity defense, and instead permits a jury to consider evidence of a person’s mental disease or defect solely to determine whether the person possessed the requisite mental state for the crime. The majority also reaffirmed its prior decision that the Eighth Amendment does not categorically prohibit the execution of persons who were severely mentally ill when the person committed the murder. Lastly, the majority concluded there was sufficient evidence that Kahler’s crime was committed in an especially heinous, atrocious, or cruel manner to justify a death sentence.

Justice Dan Biles wrote a concurring opinion, agreeing that Kahler’s conviction and sentence should be affirmed, but disagreeing with the majority that certain comments by the trial judge to the jury should be characterized as judicial misconduct.

Justice Lee Johnson wrote a dissenting opinion, contending that the majority inadequately analyzed whether the statute removing mental disease or defect as a defense is constitutional in a death penalty case. Furthermore, the dissent agreed that the trial judge’s errors did not require reversal of Kahler’s guilty verdict, but they did warrant giving Kahler a new sentencing trial. The dissent rejected the majority’s conclusion that the Eighth Amendment allows for the execution of the mentally ill. The dissent also argued the death penalty violates the Kansas Constitution’s prohibition against cruel or unusual punishment.

A .pdf version of the Supreme Court’s opinion is available here.

Kahler becomes the fifth person in Kansas whose sentence of death has been upheld by the Kansas Supreme Court since the death penalty was reinstated, according to the Kansas Attorney General’s Office. The other four are Scott Cheever, John Robinson, Gary Kleypas and Sydney Gleason. Ten people currently are under sentence of death in Kansas.

Information thanks to the Kansas Office of Judicial Administration and Kansas Attorney General’s Office. Updated to include information from Attorney General’s Office.

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