Jurors can hear mental illness testimony at Alexandria trial

Associated Press

FAIRFAX, Va. (AP) -- Lawyers for a man charged with killing three Alexandria residents over a 10-year span said Thursday their client is innocent and that his mental illness and paranoia made him the target of unfounded suspicions.

At a pretrial hearing, lawyers for Charles Severance won the right to tell jurors about Severance's mental illness at his upcoming murder trial.

Prosecutors say Severance, a former Alexandria resident with a history of erratic behavior, shot and killed three city residents in their homes dating back to 2003. Their evidence includes writings by Severance glorifying murder and his failed effort to gain asylum at the Russian embassy when police tried to interview him.

Defense lawyers say Severance's writings and behavior are explained by schizophrenia.

Prosecutors say Severance is competent. They opposed allowing testimony about Severance's mental health.

Defense lawyers say psychologist William Stejskal has diagnosed Severance with a form of schizophrenia, and that the disease helps explain why Severance would seek asylum or write approvingly about committing murders in nice neighborhoods.

At Thursday's hearing, Judge Randy Bellows ruled that the defense can present that evidence to the jury, as long as it meets the typical legal requirements for admissibility. Specifically, he said the defense must show that Stejskal has a valid foundation for believing that Severance is schizophrenic. Bellows said he wants that issue resolved before trial, and that he will strike Stejskal's testimony if it lacks a legal foundation.

Defense attorney Christopher Leibig told Bellows that Severance is not making an insanity defense. Leibig said Severance is innocent, and he claimed prosecutors are trying to bolster a weak case by highlighting Severance's writings and asylum request.

One of Severance's written passages states, "Introduce murder into a safe and secure neighborhood. It shudders with horror. Do it again and again and again."

Prosecutors also cite the fact that Severance had access to the type of gun used in the shootings. And a woman who survived the final shooting testified that Severance looks similar to the man who shot her, although she did not identify him conclusively.

Prosecutors say that allowing Stejskal to testify would allow Severance to bypass the legal requirements invoked by an insanity claim, including a requirement that Severance cooperate with a court-appointed mental health expert who could develop an independent diagnosis.

Severance, 54, of Ashburn, is charged with three slayings over the span of a decade in the city of Alexandria. 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 music teacher Ruthanne Lodato, in 2014.

Prosecutors say Severance was motivated by anger at losing a child custody case in Alexandria and sought revenge at what he perceived as the city's ruling class.

Also on Thursday, the judge barred the defense from suggesting that Nancy Dunning may have been murdered by her husband. Prosecutor David Lord said it was "morally unconscionable" to point a finger without justification at James Dunning, who died several years ago and was never charged.

Defense lawyers argued they have an obligation to zealously defend their client, and said jurors should have a right to know that James Dunning was the prime suspect in his wife's death for a decade. Lord said it was natural for police to investigate a spouse in an unsolved homicide.

Bellows said there was insufficient evidence for the defense to point the finger at James Dunning, but said he would be willing to reconsider if the defense develops additional evidence.