Investigation of family members not admitted in Charles Severance trial

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Investigation of family members not admitted in Charles Severance trial
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By Erich Wagner (File photo)

A Fairfax County judge ruled last week that defense attorneys for Charles Severance, accused in three Alexandria slayings, will not be able to introduce evidence related to police investigations of victims’ family members at trial.

Severance, 54, is charged with murder in the shooting deaths of Ruthanne Lodato in February 2014, Ron Kirby in November 2013 and Nancy Dunning in 2003.

Prosecutors filed a motion last month to prevent Severance’s defense team from arguing that other suspects were responsible for the killings, saying there is not sufficient evidence to draw jurors’ eyes away from whether Severance was culpable for the crimes.

Judge Randy I. Bellows, in his first rulings in the case since being appointed by the Virginia Supreme Court earlier this month, agreed with prosecutors. Judge Jane Roush, who previously presided over the case, was appointed by Gov. Terry McAuliffe to the state’s highest court last month.

“Based on evidence presented by the defense to date, there is insufficient basis to permit the defendant to allege the guilt of third parties,” Bellows wrote in an order. “This includes defense allegations that James Dunning is responsible for the murder of Nancy Dunning and that Ronald Kirby’s son is responsible for his murder.”

Defense attorneys had argued that Alexandria detectives’ years-long investigation into former Alexandria Sheriff Jim Dunning and the fact that he received around a $1 million inheritance after his wife’s death should be sufficient to allow them to present their case to a jury.

“In this case, there is ample circumstantial evidence directly tying the other suspects to the murders,” wrote defense attorneys Megan Thomas, Joseph King and Christopher Leibig. “The ‘trend of facts and circumstances’ clearly show that Jim Dunning had motive and opportunity to have his wife — to whom he no longer wanted to be married and after whose death he became quite wealthy — killed.”

But Commonwealth’s Attorney Bryan Porter said family members of all of the victims in the cases had alibis and that nothing in the police investigations pointed definitively to another suspect.

“It is to be expected that the defendant will aggressively challenge the methodology of the police investigation and the logical and evidentiary soundness of the premises advanced by the prosecution,” wrote Porter, David Lord, Marc Birnbaum and James Entas.

“However, the defendant should not be allowed to attempt to distract the jury and slander third parties by intimating their involvement in a crime based on nothing more than speculation about factors such as motive, without any supporting evidence actually tying the third party to the offense.”

Bellows noted that the defense attorneys can ask to revisit the issue if they come up with additional evidence supporting their claims. But the judge did tentatively rule in favor of the defense’s motion to allow for expert mental health testimony to provide an alternate explanation for Severance’s writings and attempt to seek asylum at the Russian embassy in March 2014.

“Absent a challenge to sanity at the time of offense, the [mental state] of Mr. Severance at the time the offenses were committed (whoever committed them) is not even conceivably relevant or important,” they wrote. “However, Mr. Severance’s mental state is extraordinarily important to explain why, having not committed any crimes, he would seek asylum at a foreign embassy or create unusual writings.”

But prosecutors argued that such testimony would circumvent court rules on mental health testimony — designed around affirmative insanity defenses — and impugn on a jury’s ability to make its own decision on the validity of evidence.

“[The defense’s mental health expert] cannot possibly testify based on the defendant’s writings alone that he meant something other than the advocacy of murder,” prosecutors wrote. “And, if an expert could testify as to the defendant’s intent based on the content alone and the other circumstances of the case, then he would invade the province of the jury.”

Bellows’ ruling in the matter said that the defense team may provide evidence of an alternative explanation for Severance’s actions, but told attorneys on both sides to submit additional written arguments as to whether the mental health expert can testify.

Severance’s trial is scheduled to begin on October 5 in Fairfax County Circuit Court.

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