Charles Severance, accused of three Alexandria slayings over 11 years, finally spoke in court Tuesday, giving the judge a quirky history lesson and calling for the dismissal of charges against him.
“You’re raising an important issue, that of a witness testifying against himself,” Severance told Fairfax County Circuit Court Judge Randy I. Bellows, who had asked whether Severance understood that he had the right to testify on his behalf. The 55-year-old amateur historian then segued into a four-minute history of that right, which he said stemmed from losses in a 1791 war against the Indians in the Ohio Valley.
When the judge interrupted him to reiterate the question, Severance said, “I also have the right to a speedy trial, which was denied to me.” He failed to respond to subsequent questions about whether he was able to consult with his attorneys or whether he wished to testify.
Severance, who spoke outside the presence of the jury, did not directly address the allegations against him. His comments came as defense attorneys rested their case. Bellows told jurors that they will hear closing arguments Wednesday and should begin deliberations.
Severance stands accused of murder in the 2003 killing of real estate agent Nancy Dunning, the February 2014 slaying of music teacher Ruthanne Lodato and the November 2013 fatal shooting of regional transportation planner Ronald Kirby. Prosecutors have said Severance was motivated by a child custody battle that he lost and a general hatred of Alexandria’s elite to shoot and kill the victims — all apparently strangers to him — in daylight attacks at their homes.
Jurors have heard from a woman who was wounded in one of the shootings and identified Severance as her attacker in court. And they have been presented with ballistics evidence that prosecutors say ties Severance to all three killings.
Severance’s writings also are a key piece of evidence in the case: Prosecutors assert they espouse violence and describe, without specifically referencing the victims, the crimes Severance is accused of committing.
Attorneys for Severance presented their case over four days — trying to paint for jurors a picture of a man who they say is undeniably eccentric but not guilty of murder. They hinged their case largely on the testimony of relatives and friends — all of whom described Severance’s unusual behavior — and of a forensic psychologist who said Severance suffered from personality disorder with mixed paranoid and schizotypal features.
Defense attorneys also attacked several aspects of prosecutors’ case, but, notably, they did not attempt to suggest through their witnesses that late former Alexandria sheriff James Dunning could have been responsible for his wife’s death. They had won the right to do so over prosecutors’ objection at an earlier hearing but apparently decided that pressing the issue at trial would be unwise.
Severance’s attorneys suggested his writings are the random musings of someone whose mind is addled rather than the manifesto of a killer.
The defense also offered mundane explanations for things that may appear menacing. A defense investigator testified Tuesday that Severance had unsuccessfully applied for a Fulbright scholarship and had claimed to have taken an online Coursera class in English common law, for which he wrote 20 papers. A phrase he often used, “tomahawking a homestead,” came from a historic marker at Graysville, Pa., and a bumper sticker on his vehicle, “Assassination City Roller Derby” was an advertisement for a Dallas-area athletic league, the investigator said.
The defense suggested that Severance wasn’t fleeing from a police search before he was arrested in West Virginia in March 2014 but had traveled to pursue his interest in American history. The investigator said Severance had answered a Craigslist housing ad, saying he intended to stay in the area for about a month while researching history.
In the 2,100 pages of notes culled from Severance’s possession, the names of the three Alexandria victims never appeared, the defense investigator testified.
Some of the notes were about his and others’ card games, and pages were filled with seemingly random words organized into good and bad categories.
The defense again showed a video of Dunning in a Target store, noting that she entered 46 minutes before a man who prosecutors say is Severance. Family members and the defense say that person is not Severance.
The prosecution’s rebuttal witnesses included an FBI agent who interviewed Severance’s sister on the day of his arrest. She said the police sketch of the killer, which she saw in the news media, looked like her brother. A police detective said Severance’s parents allowed him into their basement but deadbolted a door that would have given him access to the upper floors.