Crime & Courts

Defendant's sanity at issue in capital murder trial

LYNDON — Defense attorneys in a Kansas capital murder case are expected to raise questions in court this week about the sanity of a man accused of killing his estranged wife and three other family members.

But Kansas has an unusual standard for determining when someone is too mentally ill to be held legally responsible for a crime.

The second week of James Kraig Kahler's trial begins Monday in Osage County District Court. He is accused of shooting his wife, their two teenage daughters and his wife's grandmother the weekend after Thanksgiving 2009 in the grandmother's home just outside Burlingame.

Kahler, 48, is a former city utilities director in Columbia, Mo., who lost his job amid a contentious divorce and moved back to Kansas in 2009 to live with his parents. His attorneys contend he snapped mentally because of the divorce and his wife's sexual relationship with a woman.

Kansas is among a few states in which jurors aren't asked to consider whether defendants understood at the time that their alleged actions were criminal. Instead, Kansas jurors consider whether an accused murderer's mental state kept him from forming the intent to kill specific victims and reflecting on actions he might take.

"Kansas does not have 'not guilty by reason of insanity,' " said Jeffrey Jackson, a law professor at Washburn University of Topeka. "Was he so lacking in his mental state that he did not intend to do what he did? That's kind of a squishy standard."

Prosecutors called the last of their scheduled witnesses Friday and are expected to formally rest their case Monday. They have argued that the killings were premeditated, and are pursuing the death penalty.

The victims of the shootings were Karen Kahler, 44; her grandmother, Dorothy Wight, 89; and the Kahlers' daughters, Emily, 18, and Lauren, 16. The Kahlers' son, Sean, now 12, also was at the scene but escaped without injury. He testified earlier in the trial that he saw his father shoot his mother.