TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — Attorneys for a Kansas death row inmate convicted of killing his estranged wife, their two daughters and his wife's grandmother pressed the state's highest court Friday to toss out his conviction, arguing the trial judge mistakenly tilted the proceedings against him.
Defense attorney Meryl Carver-Allmond told the Kansas Supreme Court there's no question James Kraig Kahler carried out the room-by-room shooting rampage in 2009.
But Carver-Allmond suggested the trial judge overstepped, including questioning a witness in a way that "suggests the judge was helping the prosecutor." The judge also appeared to limit prospective jurors from voicing their opinions during jury selection and seemed to tell jurors they could not pose open-court questions about witnesses or evidence during their deliberations, Carver-Allmond argued.
"The two sets of rules here (for the trial prosecution and defense) is really part of the problem," she said, before pointing the court to consider testimony about Kahler's questioned mental state at the time of the killings.
"This trial wasn't about who was pulling the trigger that night," she said. "This trial was about the state of mind of who was pulling the trigger that night."
An attorney for the state, Kristafer Ailslieger, countered that "everything the trial court did is something that by law they're allowed to do," including allowing Kahler's prosecutor to interrupt the defense attorney during opening statements.
Kahler was convicted in 2011 of fatally shooting Karen Kahler, 44; her 89-year-old grandmother, Dorothy Wight; and the Kahlers' two daughters, 18-year-old Emily and 16-year-old Lauren, at Wight's home in Burlingame, about 65 miles southwest of Kansas City. The killings came after he lost his job as the water director in Columbia, Missouri, and after his wife initiated divorce proceedings after leaving him for a woman in Texas.
Authorities said he went from room to room shooting his victims. The couple's 10-year-old son survived unharmed.
A psychiatrist testified that Kahler was angry at his daughters for siding with their mother and that he thought Wight should have encouraged his wife to stay married to him. Kahler's attorneys argued that he was unable to control his emotions and was deeply depressed at the time of the attack.
The jury deliberated for two hours before convicting him and recommending his execution.
After nearly two hours of arguments Friday, the Kansas Supreme Court deferred a ruling on his appeal without hinting about when it might decide the matter. Most such rulings typically take months.
It was the court's first death penalty case since November when voters retained four of its justices who had been targeted for ouster, partly because the court overturned other death sentences.
Kansas reinstated capital punishment in 1994 but hasn't executed anyone in more than half a century. The state Supreme Court has overturned death sentences seven times in 20 years, with five of those decisions later reversed by the U.S. Supreme Court.
Kahler is among 10 Kansas death row inmates.