U.S. Supreme Court affirms Kahler’s capital murder conviction

James Kraig Kahler is led out of the Osage County Courthouse to the county jail after his sentencing, Oct. 10, 2011. File photo.

TOPEKA, Kan. – The U.S. Supreme Court today affirmed the capital murder conviction of James Kraig Kahler, who murdered four members of his family in Osage County, Kan., in November 2009.

A press release from Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt’s office announced the high court’s ruling, which found the Kansas statute for handling evidence of a criminal defendant’s mental disease or defect does not violate the due process of law guaranteed by the 14th Amendment. Put another way, the Kansas law governing the “insanity” defense is constitutional.

“Contrary to Kahler’s view, Kansas takes account of mental health at both trial and sentencing,” Justice Elena Kagan wrote in the majority opinion. “It has just not adopted the particular insanity defense Kahler would like. That choice is for Kansas to make – and, if it wishes, to remake and remake again as the future unfolds.”

In the 1990s, Kansas adopted a revised form of insanity defense, which is now referred to as the “mental disease or defect” defense. Under Kansas law, a criminal defendant may not be held culpable if he lacks the cognitive capacity to know that his actions violate the law. But, unlike in the majority of states, a criminal defendant in Kansas may be held culpable if he does not understand that his actions, although against the law, are also morally wrong. Kansas is one of five states that does not allow acquittals of defendants who do not recognize that their actions are morally wrong.

The Kansas Supreme Court in February 2018 upheld the Kansas approach. The U.S. Supreme Court, in a 6-3 opinion today, affirmed the Kansas Supreme Court’s ruling.

Kahler was convicted of capital murder by an Osage County jury in August 2011 for the 2009 murders of his wife, Karen Kahler, their two teenage daughters, Emily and Lauren, and Karen Kahler’s grandmother, Dorothy Wight. The shootings occurred at Wight’s Burlingame, Kan., home.

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

With today’s ruling, Kahler has now exhausted his direct appeals, and his capital murder convictions and death sentence have been affirmed. Further appeals are possible, however, through collateral attacks on the conviction or sentence in both state and federal court.

This is the fifth death penalty case to exhaust direct appeals since the Kansas Legislature reinstated the death penalty in 1994. The others are State v. Scott Cheever (Greenwood County), State v. Sidney Gleason (Barton County), State v. Gary Kleypas (Crawford County) and State v. John Robinson (Johnson County).

Kahler is one of 10 people under sentence of death in Kansas. The other death penalty cases that remain pending at various stages of direct appeals before the Kansas Supreme Court are State v. Jonathan Carr (Sedgwick County); State v. Reginald Carr (Sedgwick County); State v. Justin Thurber (Cowley County); State v. Frazier Glenn Miller (Johnson County); and State v. Kyle Flack (Franklin County).

In an eleventh case, State v. Doug Belt (Sedgwick County), the defendant died in prison, but the Kansas Supreme Court in October 2016 declined to disturb the capital murder conviction and death sentence.

Today’s decision is the second from the three cases the Kansas attorney general’s office argued last fall at the U.S. Supreme Court. Earlier this month, the Court decided Kansas v. Garcia, ruling that state laws prohibiting identity theft and related crimes are not preempted by the federal Immigration Reform and Control Act. The third case, Kansas v. Glover, remains pending with a decision expected by June.

Since, Oct. 12, 2011, Kahler has been incarcerated at El Dorado Correctional Facility, El Dorado, Kan. The Kansas Department of Corrections lists his custody level as special management, and says he does not participate in work or programs at this time.

A copy of today’s U.S. Supreme Court decision in Kahler v. Kansas is available at https://bit.ly/3adJc1f.

Information thanks to the Kansas Attorney General’s Office.

See related story: Kansas Supreme Court denies Kahler’s appeal of death sentence

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