In a small Payson courtroom, convicted killer Kevan Kuhlman's hopes for a lighter sentence vanished Feb. 7. A Gila County jury rendered a guilty verdict following a three-week trial in the 2001 killing of 52-year-old Payson TV station manager Susan Birchak. The defendant chose sentencing by Judge Peter Cahill over the jury.
In determining the length of sentence to be imposed for the second-degree murder conviction, Cahill ruled that aggravating circumstances warranted the maximum allowable sentence of 22 years.
On Oct. 9, 2001, Birchak's body was found in the living room of the home she shared with Kuhlman. An autopsy revealed she died from blunt force injuries to her face, and strangulation.
Judge Cahill said, "The manner (of the crime) was indeed cruel, senseless and heinous. A majority of injuries inflicted were not the cause of her death. She fought desperately. Her ribs were broken, making it more painful and harder to breathe in her last moments. You chose to finish her off by strangulation.
"With prompt help, there was a small hope to revive the victim. You did nothing to help her. You did things to help yourself."
Testimony at the trial indicated the victim was dead for at least 30 minutes prior to the arrival of paramedics. Upon the arrival of law enforcement, Kuhlman was found to be intoxicated.
Cahill said that Kuhlman was a menace to others when intoxicated.
"You beat up vulnerable women," he said. Cahill referred to prior domestic violence incidents against three women, including an ex-wife who remains terrified of Kuhlman 18 years later. Another victim was attempting to notify police of his whereabouts when she learned Birchak was killed.
Judge Cahill also noted similarities in a third domestic violence attack when the defendant straddled the victim while beating her. Kuhlman was on probation for a domestic violence (conviction) at the time of the murder.
The law gives opportunity of mitigating circumstances upon showing of true remorse. Judge Cahill told the defendant the remorse he had shown was not sufficient for a finding of mitigation.
Cahill rejected Kuhlman's prior claim to have shown remorse in a previous proceeding when he said he wished he could take back that night.
The judge told Kuhlman that his demeanor and behavior in court showed that he was not remorseful but rather sorry he got caught. He chided the defendant for his attempts to intimidate and point the finger at John Birchak, who was seated behind the prosecution team during the trial proceedings. Kuhlman had, on one occasion, turned in his seat at the defense table and glared at John Birchak during testimony at the trial.
Judge Cahill found Kuhlman was free of prior felony convictions, noting he had three prior misdemeanors for domestic violence.
He also found Kuhlman's defense of depression insufficient, with no family history or facts establishing depression or attempts to follow through with treatment prior to the murder.
The judge also found Kuhlman's claim that his deceased father had physically abused him was unfounded, based on testimony during the trial.
The defense also offered a "Good Guy" article from a 2000 issue of the Payson Roundup. Kuhlman and others had assisted a stranded motorist. Cahill said one isolated incident of helping a stranded person could not rise to the level of a mitigating circumstance.
Several members of the victim's family were at the sentencing hearing. Many stood to speak, including Susan Birchak's estranged husband, John Birchak.
He spoke of the impact of the absence of Susan on the family, saying he believed she would have overcome her difficulties. He called the trial a necessary part of the justice process but added, "All the details brought forward have been a shock to the family ... It's difficult for the family to relive this tragedy."
Birchak told the court this crime could have been prevented, and hoped for better enforcement against "domestic predators" who repeat the same behaviors against innocents who have no way of knowing the danger to themselves and their lives.
An emotional Bill Clark, Susan Birchak's brother, traveled across the country to attend. "This is the time in my life and my sister's when we were supposed to call each other on Sundays with bragging rights about our grandchildren and families," he said. "I'm not able to deal with this pain. This is so senseless and tragic."
Hannah Birchak, wife of the victim's son, said her husband is affected to this day. "(Kuhlman) took away his mom and my husband. It is horrible to go through this again." She then turned to Kuhlman and said, "May God be with you, Kevan Kuhlman."
Kuhlman also took opportunity to speak. Wearing an orange jumpsuit, he stood handcuffed and shackled before the bench.
"I feel I should stand fast in my plea of not guilty," he said. "I am deeply sorry for what they have had to go through. (I'm) sorry for all the families including mine, (Susan's) family and grandson. I don't know how the jury came back with a guilty verdict. It's been done and I'm at your mercy."
Kuhlman said he would continue to proclaim his innocence and would never change his "not guilty" pleas. He had initially pleaded guilty to second-degree murder in a plea bargain deal, but won a post-conviction relief appeal that resulted in a trial.
Kuhlman was led out of the courtroom and walked by his mother and stepfather with head down and eyes downcast, never looking up.
Gila County Attorney Daisy Flores was pleased with the sentence.
"It's a just outcome," Flores said. "He will have 22 years to think about Susan Birchak."
Defense Attorney Christy Riggins had no comment. She told the court she would file an appeal within 20 days on the request of her client. Kuhlman received credit for 1,581 days as time served, and must serve every day of the sentence. He was ordered to pay $9,500 in restitution.