By MATTHEW BARAKAT
FAIRFAX, Va. (AP) — Between sobs, home health worker Jante Dorcas Franco gave a judge a halting, haunting description of surviving an attack that left another woman, music teacher Ruthanne Lodato, shot dead in her home.
"I heard something like a loud noise. I ran over," she said Thursday at a pretrial hearing on murder charges against her alleged attacker, Charles Severance. "I fell down, and then he shot. Then I felt some pain."
The judge halted the hearing for roughly 30 minutes after Franco began sobbing uncontrollably in her attempt to describe what happened.
Thursday's hearing in Fairfax County Circuit Court was held in part to determine whether Franco can reliably identify Severance as the man who shot her. Severance, 54, of Ashburn, is charged with three separate slayings in the city of Alexandria over a 10-year span. All three victims were shot in their homes, in broad daylight, in a wealthy, residential neighborhood. They were identified as: Nancy Dunning, wife of then-Sheriff James Dunning, in 2003; transportation planner Ron Kirby in 2013, and Lodato in 2014.
Ultimately, Judge Jane Marum Roush rejected defense objections and said that jurors can hear evidence about Franco's efforts to identify Severance from a photo lineup. Franco was shown six photos of gray-haired, bearded white men, and never positively identified Severance as the shooter. But while she rejected the other five quickly, she studied Severance's photo closely, and said that the face was very similar, but the beard in the photo was longer than the beard of the man who shot her.
Prosecutors believe the evidence is compelling, especially since the photo she viewed was taken a month after the shooting, and Severance had an opportunity to grow out his beard in that time.
Defense lawyers argued that Franco's memory of the attack is faulty, and complained that the procedures in the photo lineup tended to point to Severance as the suspect. But Roush said that police went out of their way to ensure a fair photo lineup, even bringing in an officer from another department who had no idea who Severance was to conduct the lineup.
Franco's testimony at trial could be key, since she is the only person who survived the shootings. Defense lawyers say there is no forensic evidence at any of the crime scenes linking Severance to the shootings.
Prosecutors say Severance, a former Alexandria resident with a history of odd behavior while running fringe candidacies for political office, was angry about losing a child-custody case in Alexandria and sought revenge against what he perceived as the city's ruling class.
Also on Thursday, the judge rejected a request for a second competency exam of Severance. Experts at a state hospital earlier this year determined he is competent to assist in his own defense, but his court-appointed lawyers say his behavior has worsened. He has refused to meet with his lawyers, and demanded the right to wear a kilt and tri-cornered hat in court.
During Thursday's hearing, Severance blurted out an objection to being evaluated by a court-appointed psychologist.
"I don't want to be denigrated by a shrink," Severance said. "He's a mad doctor."
"He's a good guy," the judge responded, referring to the psychologist in question.
"He's a fraud," Severance countered.
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