Judge allows defense to point finger at former sheriff

(AP) -- Defense lawyers for a man accused of killing three Alexandria residents over a 10-year span will be allowed to present evidence that they believe implicates a former sheriff in one of the deaths.

At a pretrial hearing Thursday, Judge Randy Bellows reversed an earlier ruling and is allowing lawyers for Charles Severance, 54, of Ashburn to point the finger at Alexandria Sheriff James Dunning, who is now deceased, for the 2003 slaying of Nancy Dunning.

PHOTOS: Charles Severance appears in Fairfax court

Prosecutors objected, saying the defense theory unfairly drags James Dunning's name through the mud. Dunning was a suspect in his wife's killing for years but was never charged.

Authorities now say they believe Severance, a former Alexandria resident with a history of erratic behavior, killed Nancy Dunning and two other prominent Alexandria residents to seek revenge against what he perceived as the city's ruling class for losing a child custody case. Severance also is charged with the murders of transportation planner Ron Kirby in November 2013 and music teacher Ruthanne Lodato in February 2014.

Last month, Bellows ruled that the defense could not implicate James Dunning unless they showed they had evidence to substantiate the accusation. At Thursday's hearing, defense lawyer Megan Thomas said that when Dunning found his wife's body in their home, he called 911 and said his wife had been murdered, even though nobody had determined at that point that there had been any foul play.

She also cited suspicions of detectives who focused on James Dunning extensively in their investigation.

Commonwealth's Attorney Bryan Porter called the accusations against James Dunning "filthy" and flimsy, saying prosecutors would be laughed out of court if they tried to bring a murder charge on such evidence.

He called the accusations "a character attack and slander against a man who is not able to defend himself," while Dunning's daughter, sitting in court, nodded in agreement.

Porter also said it is not suspicious for a man with law-enforcement experience like Dunning to quickly conclude that his wife had been murdered upon surveying a bloody crime scene.

Bellows, in explaining his decision, made clear he was not passing judgment on whether he thinks Dunning was guilty. But he said Severance is entitled to a vigorous defense, and his lawyers should not be barred from presenting alternative theories to a jury except under exceptional circumstances.

Also Thursday, a forensic psychologist testified that Severance suffers from a personality disorder with paranoid and schizotypal features, but said he can't conclude with certainty that Severance suffers from full-blown schizophrenia.

Defense lawyers plan to present testimony from psychologist William Stejskal to try to explain some of Severance's odd behavior, including his attempt to seek asylum at the Russian Embassy and his violence-laced journal writings that advocate murder. But they are not claiming that Severance was insane at the time of the killings.

Prosecutors sought unsuccessfully to bar Stejskal from testifying to the jury when the trial begins next month, arguing that his diagnosis is unreliable because Severance has refused to be interviewed by Stejskal.

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