Sitting in a small, cramped conference room, surrounded by her attorney, an assistant district attorney, representatives of the Lookout Mountain Judicial Circuit and two media representatives, Teresa Lynn Kohnle answered a single word to Catoosa County Superior Court judge Ralph Van Pelt’s question of “How do you plead?” Friday morning. The one word answer, “Guilty,” ensured that the now-convicted murderer would spend what could be the rest of her life in prison for her participation in a plot that left her husband, Dr. James Kohnle, dead of smoke inhalation at their Boynton home.
Ms. Kohnle, 36, accepted a plea agreement from the district attorney’s office that gave her life with the possibility for parole in the death of the 57-year-old Dr. Kohnle on June 29, 2007.
She accepted her role in the plot designed to help alleviate her family’s financial problems, but rejected the state’s initial charge that she intentionally caused her husband’s death.
With the agreement, the state dropped count one in her case, malice murder. The felony murder, to which she pled, infers no intention to harm Dr. Kohnle.
McCracken "Ken" Poston, attorney for Ms. Kohnle, originally asked the district attorney’s office for a recommendation on a plea agreement. Assistant District Attorney Alan Norton said, “I then researched the case and came back with an agreement we thought was fair and appropriate.”
Had the case gone to trial, Ms. Kohnle could have been convicted on all counts and received a sentence of life without possibility of parole. Attorney Poston stated, “We have explained to Ms. Kohnle that we have no way of providing her with how much time she will have to serve before being considered for parole.”
As Judge Van Pelt put it to the convicted, “It will depend on many factors as to when you might receive parole. It would be a bad idea to punch a guard on your first day in prison, I can tell you that much.”
With his client willing to accept the deal, attorney Poston said the two sides actually reached an agreement two days ago. Asked if he was satisfied with the outcome, attorney Poston replied, “This was a very well-investigated case. My client spoke every time they (law enforcement) asked her to speak. There was also an issue of a polygraph that she failed that would have been introduced at trial.”
He also offered, “One of the worst aspects of our case was that her children, now 10 and 14, stated that she was the last person in the house with their father before all three left on a trip to Knoxville and, as they drove away, they could see smoke coming from the house.”
According to the veteran defense attorney, this presented a major problem for the state with her being in custody of the children while awaiting trial.
Prosecutor Norton said, “We were able to reach a compromise for her parents, who reside in Harlan, Ky., to take the children. Ms. Kohnle was able to have visitation with her children through the Four Points program.”
“Once the plea deal was reached,” said attorney Poston, “Mr. Norton was gracious enough to allow my client to meet with her children with just the grandparents present, rather than a third party. This gave her some much-appreciated time with her kids.”
When asked to testify to facts, Ms. Kohnle stated that she “had no intention of harming my husband. When the time came, he told me to light the candles and not ask any questions. So, I lit two candles and walked away.”
A state fire marshal’s report found that an accelerant was found in an office just off the couple's bedroom at their home at 3386 Boynton Dr. The body of Dr. Kohnle was found in a back bedroom. The fire was in an area of the kitchen used as office space.
Dr. Kohnle was a chiropractor in Dalton, and Ms. Kohnle worked in the office as a massage therapist. Dr. Kohnle was suffering from a disease that left him with limited ability to work.
He had a life insurance policy that named his wife as the beneficiary.
One aspect that apparently frightened Ms. Kohnle was that a firefighter was injured, along with the death of her husband. “This bothered her very much and was one reason she wanted to take responsibility for what happened,” said attorney Poston.
Another factor that proved to be somewhat mitigating was a crudely written last will and testament that Dr. Kohnle had sent his friend and insurance agent, Tom Drew. It was also an admission of the plot the Kohnles had entered into to burn the house down. According to Mr. Drew Ms. Kohnle had no way of knowing about the letter. According to attorney Poston, Mr. Drew also drew inference from the letter that Dr. Kohnle may have been contemplating suicide.
As Judge Van Pelt prepared to announce his sentence, Ms. Kohnle asked, in a quiet, broken voice, “Your honor, I just beg you to have mercy on me for this. I accept responsibility for this.”
The judge told Ms. Kohnle that while he appreciated her circumstance in asking for mercy, he was bound to follow the law and the plea agreement. He did tell her, “I expect the parole board will take the fact that you accepted responsibility into account when your case is considered. As for a sentence range, I cannot give you that.”
As she was placed into handcuffs for the trip to the Catoosa County Jail, she asked the officer to “please not make them too tight,” as she had a previous injury to her wrists. Led away with her hands cuffed in front of her she said one last “I love you” to a family member present and was taken through a door to a waiting van.
With her diagnostic evaluation to take place while she is in the county jail, ADA Norton said that were three possibilities of where Ms. Kohnle might eventually be incarcerated. Those were Metro State Prison in Atlanta, Coastal State Prison near Brunswick and Alto State Prison in Gainesville. These are all state women’s facilities.
(You can contact Dennis Norwood at firstname.lastname@example.org; Follow him on Twitter at DennisENorwood)