U.S. Supreme Court will review James Kahler insanity defense

Published: Oct. 7, 2019 at 5:30 PM CDT
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When James Kraig Kahler's wife, two daughters, and his wife's grandmother were shot to death on Thanksgiving weekend 2009, the question wasn't who the shooter was.

Two mortally wounded victims survived long enough to identify the gunman, saying it was Kahler.

But Kahler's defense team argued that Kahler mentally snapped, that his deteriorating mental health adversely impacted his marriage, his family and his work, and that led to the loss of his job in 2009 in Columbia Mo., where he was a utilities official.

On Monday, U.S. Supreme Court justices heard arguments from Kahler attorneys, who said Kansas prosecutors violated the U.S. Constitution by denying Kahler the right to pursue an insanity defense.

In the appeal, the Kahler defense questioned whether abolishing the insanity defense denies a defendant his guaranteed right to due legal process.

Supreme Court justices will decide whether the Constitution allows a state to abolish the insanity defense. Attorneys representing the state of Kansas say it hasn't abolished the insanity defense, just modified it.

The Kahler case was the first heard by the Supreme Court during its fall schedule.

Has Kansas unconstitutionally abolished Kaher's right to use insanity as a defense?

Kahler lawyers have argued that Kahler knew he was shooting people, but they say his mental state was so disturbed at the time that he wasn't able to control his actions.

In the past, the U.S. Supreme Court has given states broad latitude in how they treat mental illness in a criminal case. The U.S. Supreme Court has allowed five states, including Kansas, to abolish the traditional insanity defense.

Until 1996, Kansas law required defendants pursuing an insanity defense to show they were so impaired by a mental illness or defect that they couldn't understand their action was criminal. But now, defendants in Kansas are permitted to cite "mental disease or defect" as a partial defense, and they must prove they didn't intend to commit the specific crime.

Monday is four days shy of the eighth anniversary of Kahler being sentenced to death in the four slayings.

Osage County District Court Judge Phillip M. Fromme signed Kahler's "death warrant" on October 11, 2011, ordering that the defendant receive a "lethal intravenous injection" in the capital murder of Karen Kahler, 44, his Kahler's former estranged wife; daughters Emily, 18, and Lauren, 16; and Dorothy Wight, 89, Karen's grandmother.

The sole survivor in Wight's home in Burlingame was Kahler's son, Sean, who was 10 at the time of the shootings. The boy witnessed the shooting of his mother in the kitchen, then was allowed to escape the house unharmed.

During Kahler's jury trial, his defense called Dr. Stephen Peterson, a psychiatrist, who testified Kahler was so depressed after his wife began a relationship with another woman and sought a divorce that he couldn't control a his behavior. Karen Kahler filed for divocrce in January 2009.

Peterson testified it was his opinion that Kahler's depression was so severe, he couldn't avoid doing what he was accused of doing.

"For that moment, he had completely lost control," Peterson testified during the trial, adding "it wasn't rational thinking."

Peterson testified that Kahler was upset with his daughters for siding with their mother, and Kahler thought Wight should have encouraged Karen to remain in their marriage.

Law enforcement officers and emergency medical personneld testified Wight and Lauren Kahler identified Kraig Kahler as the gunman. Sean Kahler testified he saw his father shoot his mother.

Following testimony, the Osage County District Court jurors on August 29, 2011, convicted Kahler of capital murder, four counts of first-degree murder, and one count of aggravated burglary, then recommended the judge impose the death penalty on Kahler, which he did.

The Kahler defense sought imposition of a life sentence in prison.

In February 2018, the Kansas Supreme Court upheld the convictions of Kahler.

Kahler, 56, is housed at the El Dorado Correctional Facility.

On Monday, Brandon L. Jones, who along with then-Assistant Attorney General Amy Hanley prosecuted the Kahler trial in Osage County, was in Washington, D.C., to watch the Kahler case before the U.S. Supreme Court. Jones also was to be sworn in as a member of the U.S. Supreme Court bar.

Attorneys representing Kahler and prosecutor argued about the insanity defense. "For centuries, criminal culpability has hinged on the capacity for moral judgment, to discern and to choose between right and wrong," Sarah Schrup, attorney representing Kahler, told the Supreme Court.

"The insane lack that capacity."

"This understanding of insanity has persisted since the 1500s and remains the rule in 48 jurisdictions today," Schrup said. "But Kansas scrubs moral capacity from its criminal law and runs afoul" of amendments governing "cruel and unusual punishment" and the due process of law.

"As criminal law evolved, the drafters moved to more precise mental states," Schrup said. "When they did that, though, they retained the compelling mechanism to show insanity. We could do that, the drafters said, because we kept this narrow remnant of common law criminality."

Speaking for the Kansas prosecutors in the case, Elizabeth Prelogar, said the Kahler case "suggests that this court should recognize a theory of moral culpability and impose that uniformly across the states.

"But the problem with that approach is there has been no agreement on the precise circumstances when mental illness should excuse criminal responsibility. There is a basic divide on when someone should be entitled to invoke the insanity defense. And this gets to the difference between legal wrong and moral wrong."

"Imagine the defendant who hears voices that command him to kill in order to save the human race," Prelogar said.

"He knows that murder is a crime and that he'd be violating the law, but he thinks the action is morally justified because of his mental illness. In a substantial number of jurisdictions, he would not be entitled to invoke the insanity defense. And so to try to recognize or articulate a theory of moral culpability has no roots in history and would actually raise the possibility of challenging state laws across the nation."