Judge: Severance competent to stand trial

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Judge: Severance competent to stand trial
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By Erich Wagner (File photo)

Specially appointed Alexandria Circuit Court Judge Jane Roush ruled Monday that the man accused in the murder of three prominent Alexandrians over the last decade is competent to stand trial.

Charles Severance, 54, is charged with multiple counts of murder in connection with the shooting deaths of local music teacher Ruthanne Lodato in February 2014, local transit guru Ronald Kirby in November 2013 and Nancy Dunning, a real estate agent and wife of then-Sheriff Jim Dunning, in 2003.

The judge had ordered Severance undergo a psychiatric evaluation last December, after he tried to fire his defense team at a preliminary hearing to the competency motion. She had to renew that order in January, after Severance reportedly refused to be interviewed by a court psychiatrist, ordering him to a state mental hospital for further evaluation.

While Severance’s defense attorneys had no objection to the competency ruling, they were ready with another motion: to move the trial out of Alexandria.

The defense team — Christopher Leibig, Joseph King and Megan Thomas — argued in a motion filed April 3 that the confluence of heavy media coverage, the citywide fear created by the shootings and the prominence of the victims would make it impossible for Severance to receive a fair and impartial trial.

Attorneys cited a number of instances of media coverage that they said was indicative of “negative pre-trial publicity” that would make it difficult for a jury to hear the case with an unbiased view of the defendant. Those examples range from reports on Severance’s behavior in court to erroneous reports that he was in an argument with Kirby at a public event shortly before his death.

“Press articles addressing Mr. Severance’s purported animosity towards the city make this a very real problem in a city of which many, many residents are very proud,” they wrote. “The press has also widely reported on Mr. Severance’s courtroom outbursts, which, while irrelevant to guilt or innocence, serve to foster the community’s impression that he is erratic and/or suffers from mental illness that could make it more likely he would have committed the charged offenses.”

The team included more than 75 news articles and more than 300 pages of reporting on aspects of the case as part of its motion.

Leibig, King and Thomas compared the case to the D.C. sniper case in terms of the fear that pervaded the community following the shootings, and said the fact that the crimes and media coverage were limited to Alexandria would make it simple to find a new venue in which to try the case.

“While [Police Chief Earl Cook] warning the public that everyone may be in danger is undoubtedly responsible police work in a case where police suspect that a murderer is at large, it has the side effect of making victims out of the entire community,” they wrote. “[We acknowledge] that the community fear surrounding the D.C. sniper cases exceeded that here as a matter of degree, but it was no different in nature due to the seemingly random selection of shooting victims.”

All local judges already had recused themselves from the case, due to their relationship to Lodato’s brother, retired General District Court Judge Robert Giammittorio, leading to the appointment of Roush, who normally presides over cases in Fairfax County.

Commonwealth’s Attorney Bryan Porter declined to comment on the motion, citing state bar rules precluding him from discussing a pending case.

Severance is due in court for a motions hearing April 23. The trial is scheduled for October.

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