By Erich Wagner and Susan Hale Thomas (File photo)
The Fairfax County judge assigned to preside over the trial of the man accused in the killings of three prominent Alexandria residents moved all proceedings to her home jurisdiction last Thursday, after defense attorneys argued finding an impartial jury in Alexandria would be impossible.
Charles Severance, 54, is accused in the shooting deaths of piano teacher Ruthanne Lodato in February 2014, transit guru Ronald Kirby in November 2013 and Del Ray realtor Nancy Dunning more than a decade ago.
In a hearing for a number of pre-trial motions, defense attorneys argued that the trial be moved out of the city because of the “inflammatory” media coverage of the case and defendant and because of the fear felt by residents immediately after the killings.
Prosecutors resisted the proposal, arguing in part that if Boston courts could find an impartial jury for convicted Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, Alexandria could find unbiased jurors for this case. And Severance interrupted discussions to object to moving the trial, arguing it violated his rights under the Sixth Amendment.
Although Roush said she did not think the media coverage angle was sufficient for a change of venue, she was more sympathetic to the “community fear” argument.
“It was a fear that the people of the city of Alexandria experienced,” Roush said. “I think it can be cured by moving [the trial] to Fairfax.”
Moving forward, all hearings and court filings in the case will be hosted at the Fairfax County courthouse, as well as the trial, which is slated to begin October 5. Severance, who has been in custody in the Arlington County jail, will be transferred to Fairfax as well.
Also at issue last week was whether to separate charges related to the Dunning slaying from the other two killings. Defense attorneys argued that there was not enough evidence to tie the decade-old case to the two more recent homicides.
“The Lodato and Kirby cases need to be connected because of the way they’re charged, but there is nothing to connect them to Dunning,” said attorney Megan Thomas. “[The] Commonwealth’s theory that the [use of the same type of] ammunition links the three, but defense has argued it’s easily available. It’s not idiosyncratic, not unique.”
But Commonwealth’s Attorney Bryan Porter argued all three slayings contained a number of similarities, particularly in how they were carried out. He noted that all occurred during a weekday, within one mile of one another, and at the front door of the victim’s home.
“They were cold-blooded assassinations,” Porter said.
Porter also pointed to Severance’s own writings, recovered during a search of his home, as a way to link the crimes.
“Thou shalt murder and vengeance is mine, sayeth the Lord,” Severance reportedly wrote.
“Knock. Talk. Enter. Kill. Exit. Murder,” read another passage, in an apparent reference to the Bible.
And Porter said another sentence by Severance makes reference to the 10-year gap between Dunning’s death and the killings of Kirby and Lodato: “I’ve been nudging and trolling for over a decade, and nobody has noticed.”
But defense attorneys disputed the idea that Severance’s writings actually spoke to a motivation to do people harm.
Porter also provided new insight on the nature of the prosecution’s ballistics evidence. All three cases featured the use of .22 caliber ammunition, and bullets recovered at all three crime scenes featured a similar twist — an imprint made as a bullet goes down the barrel of a gun — and he said experts would testify as to the rarity of three different incidents all involving the same ammunition and style of handgun.
Roush said she would take the matter “under advisement,” meaning she will rule on the matter at a later date.
At various points during the hearing, Severance interrupted the proceedings, particularly as defense attorneys requested he no longer by shackled by the ankles during his transport to and from the Arlington County jail. Severance reportedly suffers from a broken ankle, and he said the shackles exacerbate the pain.
“When there’s a shackle on this weak ankle, it is cruel and unusual punishment,” Severance said.
“I had a broken ankle a few years ago, and it still bothers me some times,” Roush said.
“Are you wearing shackles?” Severance asked.
“No,” she replied.
“Congratulations,” Severance said.
Roush said that the transfer of Severance to Fairfax County should alleviate the issue. Deputies in the county do not use ankle shackles unless a prisoner becomes disruptive, she said, and he will not travel as far to attend each court date.
After the hearing, John Kelly, a Lodato neighbor who served as a family spokesman, said the victims’ families respected the judge’s decision, and are glad to see progress in the case.
“They’re determined to see that the process is fair, and that we see a fair trial,” he said.
But Dan Mathias, a friend of Severance, said the defendant’s writings should not be taken as motivation for a crime. He said one of Severance’s hobbies were fantasy games and pen-and-paper role-playing games.
“They have no understanding of Charles’ hobbies or his life,” Mathias said.