Jury hears closing argument in Severance triple murder case

FAIRFAX, Va. (AP) — A Virginia man's hatred for the city of Alexandria after losing a child custody case drove him to murder three of the city's more prominent residents over the course of a decade, prosecutors said Wednesday in closing arguments in his monthlong trial.

Charles Severance, 55, of Ashburn is charged with shooting and killing three city residents in their homes, in broad daylight: Nancy Dunning, wife of then-Sheriff James Dunning, in 2003, transportation planner Ron Kirby in 2013 and music teacher Ruthanne Lodato last year.

Prosecutors said Severance, a former Alexandria resident with a history of erratic behavior, harbored a grudge against what he perceived as the city's elite after losing custody of his son, Levite, in an Alexandria court proceeding.

Assistant Commonwealth's Attorney David Lord told jurors that the seemingly random killings of the three only begin to make sense when you see them "through the prism of the eyes of a man who hated Alexandria."

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Defense lawyers say Severance suffers from mental illness that caused him to look suspicious, but that their client didn't commit the crimes.

"Everyone is suspicious of the middle-aged man with no place to call home," defense lawyer Megan Thomas said at the outset of her closing argument, quoting a postcard Severance had written.

During the trial, prosecutors laid out a largely circumstantial case, but also presented testimony from a key eyewitness. Dorcas Franko, a home health worker in the Lodato home, was shot but survived. She gave police a description that they used to develop a sketch of their suspect. At trial, Franko identified Severance as the attacker, although in previous interviews with police she was not as definitive in her identification.

Prosecutors also presented evidence that Severance's red Ford Escort station wagon was seen in the neighborhood in the minutes after the Lodato shooting.

Thomas also said that Franko's description of her attacker's beard was inconsistent with her client's guilt. Franko repeatedly said her attacker did not have the wild, bushy beard Severance sports now and at the time of his arrest, a month after the Lodato shooting. Prosecutors said Severance simply groomed his beard to look different from his normal appearance when he committed the shootings.

The circumstantial evidence was extensive, and much came from Severance's own hand. In his voluminous writings, he glorified murder and justified revenge against those responsible for the kidnapping of a child.

In one passage he writes: "there is much evil in the land, especially in the City of Alexandria."

And one passage bluntly states: "received no satisfaction after revenge killing."

Firearms examiners said that the specific type of .22 caliber ammunition used in the three killings was rare, and that they had only seen it in these three cases out of more than 15,000 in their career. He had urged his girlfriend to buy the ammunition and a pair of .22-caliber mini revolvers. Severance was barred from buying firearms because of a previous felony conviction.

Prosecutors also highlighted the fact that Severance tried to seek asylum at the Russian embassy in March 2014, after detectives in Alexandria first tried to question him. Severance said that he needed asylum because he was being persecuted by the city of Alexandria.

Collectively, the direct and circumstantial evidence is overwhelming, said Commonwealth's Attorney Bryan Porter.

"Mr. Severance's guilt cannot possibly be any clearer," Porter told the jury. "At what point do all of these facts stop being a coincidence?"

Severance is charged with capital murder in two of the three slayings, but prosecutors have said they will not seek a death sentence. The trial was moved from Alexandria to Fairfax because of pretrial publicity and because of widespread fear in the community caused by the slayings.

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