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JAMES KRAIG KAHLER
My first reporting experience during my semester as an advanced reporter with the Columbia Missourian was a head-first dive into courts reporting, something I’d had no experience with. I went to Lyndon, Kan., to cover the trial of former Columbia Water and Light director James Kraig Kahler, charged with capital murder in the deaths of his wife, her grandmother and his two daughters.
Through Joy Mayer‘s Community Outreach Team, I had the chance to talk a bit about my experience reporting the trial. The team plans to do more of these fascinating “behind the scenes” looks at what it’s like to write about various topics, and I’m glad I got to be their guinea pig. You can watch the video here.
Over the course of roughly three weeks, give or take a few days and the weekends, I tried to produce two text stories each day with Missourian city editor Katherine Reed. That put me at 17 stories — more bylines than I had from an entire semester in basic reporting.
DAYS 1 & 2
Attorneys expected jury selection in the Kahler case to take a week, but those proceedings only took two days. Osage County Prosecutor Brandon Jones, Assistant Attorney General Amy Hanley and defense attorneys Tom Haney and Amanda Vogelsberg narrowed down a pool of nearly 300 people who filled out jury questionnaires to 52, and used the Friday of that week to finalize their selections of 12 jurors and three alternates who were also present for the entire trial.
THE NEXT WEEK
As Hanley said at one point, jury selection was the part of the trial no one sees on CSI. Though real courtroom proceedings, of course, bear little resemblance to their TV counterparts, there’s something to be said for the intense human drama that unfolds in all cases, especially those as gruesome as Kahler’s. Over the following week, Aug. 15 to Aug. 19, the court heard the prosecution’s argument.
The first day of witness testimony brought Kraig Kahler’s son, Sean Kahler, to the stand. The 12-year-old was unwaveringly calm and composed while providing detailed and eerie information about the night of the killings, as he is the sole living eyewitness.
Kraig and Karen Kahler’s relationship with a woman named Sunny Reese was explored further during the second day of testimony, along with the bulk of the prosecution’s physical evidence collected from Kahler’s red Ford Explorer and his person the morning he was arrested. It was established by various prosecution witnesses — including Reese herself — that Karen Kahler began a romantic relationship with Reese while married to Kraig Kahler.
The model Katherine and I used to cover the morning and afternoon testimonies for both the web and print was scrapped at the end of the day. That Tuesday, we ended up having to write and edit three separate stories, which was simply not sustainable for two weeks’ worth of testimony.
The third day of testimony focused on evidence — including shell casings — found in the home of Dorothy Wight, Karen Kahler’s grandmother. The jury also saw items from Kraig Kahler’s SUV, and defense attorney Tom Haney sought to focus on the fact Kahler had taken none of the antidepressants prescribed to him, given the full bottles of pills found in his car.
That afternoon, the prosecution called its second “blockbuster” witness — Sunny Reese. Her sometimes-emotional testimony alone took nearly two hours and served as the focus of my afternoon story.
The jury heard Kahler’s voice for the first time during the trial in a videotaped interview with the Kansas Bureau of Investigation the morning of his arrest. That video was the sole testimony the court heard that morning and the sole focus of my story that morning.
That afternoon, Kahler’s family was brought to the stand. His father, Wayne Kahler, and his brother, Kris Kahler, testified that Kraig Kahler had made “disturbing statements” about “(going) out in a blaze of glory” and having “disturbing thoughts.”
A host of forensic experts including a firearms examiner, a bloodstain analyst and a forensic pathologist testified that Friday, placing Kahler at the scene of the murders and showing often graphic images of the bodies of Karen, Emily and Lauren Kahler and Dorothy Wight.
THE THIRD WEEK
Defense attorneys Tom Haney and Amanda Vogelsberg called their witnesses during the next week. Some, such as Kahler’s parents, were subpeonaed by the defense as well as the prosecution. With the exception of a forensic psychiatrist, the bulk of the defense’s witnesses were friends of the family or colleagues of Kahler’s whom the defense sought to use to show the family’s happiness and normalcy before the start of Karen Kahler’s relationship with Sunny Reese. Former Columbia City Manager Bill Watkins was also called to speak in detail about Kahler’s work performance as director of the city’s Water and Light department.
The jury heard from family friends Don and Marina Coulter from Weatherford, Texas, and Kahler’s former employee, Michael Schmitz, who later became the interim director of Water and Light after Kahler’s firing. Siamac Vahabzadeh, the family practitioner whom Kahler saw for self-declared troubling thoughts, irritation and anxiety, also testified.
That afternoon’s testimony wasn’t quite as dense, with Kahler’s parents taking the stand for the second time. Those testimonies formed the very last part of my afternoon story, with Vahabzadeh’s testimony and the stories from the Coulters taking precedence.
The defense called what was arguably its key witness on the second-to-last day of testimony: a forensic psychiatrist named Stephen Peterson. Peterson testified that Kahler had severe major depression, a condition that caused him to be “severely mentally impaired” when he entered Wight’s home the night of the shootings.
Bill Watkins and a former City of Weatherford employee also testified that Tuesday. The defense rested its case that evening.
The prosecuting attorneys called Peterson’s business partner and colleague, forensic psychiatrist William Logan, to testify that Kahler did have depression, but not a variety that would have caused mental impairment and would have rendered Kahler capable of premeditation.
The best man at Kahler’s wedding also testified that Wednesday.
A guilty verdict was handed down by the jury three weeks after jury selection began.
A few weeks after Kahler was found guilty of capital murder and four counts of first-degree murder, he was sentenced to death.
Kansas hadn’t carried out the death penalty since 1965, when James Latham and George York were executed by hanging after they were convicted of killing seven people across the country. Perry Smith and Richard Hickock were also executed in 1965 for the 1959 murders of the Clutter family in Holcomb, Kan. — the killings that would become famous in Truman Capote’s 1966 nonfiction novel, “In Cold Blood.”
THE RYAN FERGUSON CASE
In 2005, Ryan Ferguson was convicted of second-degree murder and first-degree robbery after an acquaintance and former classmate, Charles “Chuck” Erickson, implicated him in the killing of former Columbia Daily Tribune sports editor Kent Heitholt. Erickson came to Columbia Police Department detectives after telling friends he’d been having dreams of his involvement in the killing and included Ferguson in his statement.
Then, in 2009, Erickson changed his statement, saying Ferguson wasn’t responsible for Heitholt’s death at all. He told Ferguson’s attorney, the Chicago-based Kathleen Zellner, that “I could not accept in my conscious mind that I was the sole perpetrator and aggressor, so I put a lot of the blame on Ryan.”
This story delved into the ongoing puzzle of recovered and repressed memories and their use in the courtroom.