Charles Severance to face one trial on murder charges

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Charles Severance to face one trial on murder charges
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By Erich Wagner (File photo)

A judge denied a motion last week requesting two separate trials for the man accused in the deaths of three prominent Alexandrians over the course of more than a decade.

Charles Severance is charged with capital murder and first-degree murder in the deaths of Nancy Dunning in 2003, Ronald Kirby in November 2013 and Ruthanne Lodato in February 2014. Prosecutors have said they will not pursue the death penalty in the case.

Attorneys for Severance argued in April that there is not enough evidence to connect the decade-old Dunning case with the two more recent slayings. Fairfax County Circuit Court Judge Jane Roush took the matter under advisement at that hearing — the last before proceedings were moved to Fairfax — before issuing her ruling on the matter last week.

In her ruling, Roush — specially appointed to the case after all Alexandria judges recused themselves due to their relationship with Lodato’s father and brother, who were both local judges — said that although prosecutors’ arguments that various images of Severance over the years constitute “interlocking evidence” fell flat, evidence establishing common methods  and objectives between the crimes was sufficient to keep the charges together.

“The offenses are sufficiently ‘idiosyncratic in character,’” Roush wrote. “[The] commonwealth’s proffered evidence suggests that the defendant’s common plan was to exact revenge on the elites of the city of Alexandria because of his deep anger over the loss of the custody of his child.”

Roush’s summary of prosecutors’ arguments on the motion provided perhaps the most complete outline of the evidence against Severance to date. The defendant moved to Alexandria in the late 1990s and fathered a child with the woman with whom he lived. But in 2000, he lost what prosecutors described as a “contentious and prolonged” custody case and never saw the child again.

Prosecutors argue this triggered a deep seeded resentment against local government, the courts and eventually those he saw as the city’s “Utopian elites.” In April 2003, eight months before Dunning was shot to death, Severance bought a .22-caliber mini-revolver, capable of firing low velocity Remington ammunition — the size and brand of ammunition found at each of the three crime scenes.

Attorneys for Severance argued in April and in previous court filings that .22-caliber guns and ammunition are among the most commonly available in the U.S.

“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 in April. “[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.”

In February 2004, two months after Dunning’s death, police in Harrisonburg, Va., seized Severance’s revolver during a traffic stop where he was charged with a felony. Prosecutors argued that the gap between crimes stemmed in part from the fact that Severance travelled “throughout the United States” after his conviction, as well as the fact that he was unable to procure a gun until May 2012, when he convinced his girlfriend to buy a revolver of the same brand and model as the one he owned in the early 2000s.

“At the defendant’s urging, his girlfriend purchased two North American Arms five-shot mini revolvers, one in May 2012, and the other in August 2012,” Roush wrote, noting that her summary of prosecutors’ evidence is not yet proven in court. “[She] recalls that the defendant emphatically wanted ‘low velocity ammunition only.’”

Prosecutors said .22-caliber Remington ammunition also was found at the Kirby and Lodato crime scenes and that evidence indicates that all three shootings were committed using very similar, but different guns.

Commonwealth’s Attorney Bryan Porter said in April that two tenured ballistics experts would testify “that in their entire careers, the only offenses in which they have observed this type of ammunition used in a crime, any crime, let alone murder, are these three offenses that occurred within approximately one mile of one another in a low-crime neighborhood of Alexandria.”

Roush’s summary of evidence likely to presented by prosecutors at trial included more excerpts of Severance’s writings recovered by police.

“Murder is good,” Severance wrote. “Court justice is bad. Can you forgive someone for kidnapping your son? Can you murder someone for kidnapping your son?”

At a motions hearing last week, Roush denied a series of motions from Severance’s defense team, most notably an effort to exclude the defendant’s writings from evidence at trial. She declared a motion requesting notice of prosecutors’ intentions with regard to prior “unadjudicated” criminal acts moot, as the prosecution said it would not introduce any.

Roush still is considering motions by the defense team on jury selection procedures and whether to exclude evidence involving vehicle reenactments. The trial is scheduled to begin October 5, with the next pre-trial hearing slated for July 23.

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