Defense attorneys for the man accused of fatally shooting three prominent Alexandria residents over roughly 10 years launched a push Wednesday to humanize their client, painting for jurors a portrait of a man who they assert is undeniably eccentric but not a murderer.
After prosecutors rested their case against Charles Severance, defense attorneys called his parents and sister to describe Severance’s eclectic background and what they perceived as possible mental-health problems. Severance’s mother said her son flew a skull-and-crossbones flag at the family home, developed an interest in crystals and once took money that his family thought he was spending on college tuition and invested it in Chrysler.
His father, a retired two-star Navy admiral, conceded that his son sometimes behaved bizarrely and flashed a quick temper, but he said Severance was also an avid gamer, history buff and fan of the TV show “Survivor.”
Severance, 55, is charged with murder in the February 2014 slaying of music teacher Ruthanne Lodato, the November 2013 shooting of regional transportation planner Ronald Kirby and the December 2003 killing of real estate agent Nancy Dunning. Prosecutors allege that he was motivated by a child custody ruling that went against him and a general hatred of those he considered Alexandria’s elite to shoot and kill three prominent residents of the city.
Over the past three weeks, jurors have heard emotional testimony from relatives who found their loved ones slain and from a woman who said Severance shot and wounded her in an apparently random attack. They have watched surveillance videos and been presented with ballistics evidence that prosecutors hope will convince them of a link between the three slayings in which Severance is charged.
And jurors have seen or heard Severance’s writings, which prosecutors say speak to his motive in the attacks.
Opening the defense portion of the case Wednesday, Severance’s attorneys first sought to cast doubt about the testimony of prosecutors’ star witness: Janet Dorcas Franko. She worked in the Lodato home, caring for Lodato’s elderly mother, and identified Severance in court as the man who shot and wounded her in the same incident in which Lodato was killed.
Defense attorneys called an expert to explain the pitfalls of relying on human memory, although the expert did not specifically opine on Franko’s testimony.
Defense attorneys next turned their attention to giving jurors a more exhaustive look at Severance’s life and his possible struggles with mental illness. They are not pursuing an insanity defense but hope the testimony about Severance’s unusual speech and actions will help explain his offensive and at times violent writings, which prosecutors assert describe his crimes to a T.
In one document, for example, he wrote: “Knock. Talk. Enter. Kill. Exit. Murder,” prosecutors have asserted.
Severance’s father, Stan Severance, said he had heard his son express ostensibly violent sentiments — including, “The only good cop is a dead cop” — and Severance became very angry when his child custody dispute was mentioned. But Stan Severance said his son often spoke nonsensically and had a flair for the abnormal. When he campaigned to become mayor of Alexandria, for example, one piece of his platform was “to introduce country dancing in the schools,” Stan Severance said.
Sophie Grasmeder, Severance’s younger sister, said her brother dressed oddly, once wearing a tri-corner hat and a poncho to a concert at DAR Constitution Hall. She said Severance “just traveled around a lot, just kind of lived what I would call the life of a nomad,” adding that he “seemed happy with that.”
Virginia Severance, Severance’s mother, said a social worker once called to warn her that her son had threatened her and her husband, and Virginia said her son had previously been prescribed medication by a psychiatrist. She said she was concerned about her son’s mental health, but she did not object to many of her son’s actions.
“I like nonconformists, and I think Charlie was always a nonconformist,” Virginia Severance said.
Stan Severance said he and his wife went to National Alliance on Mental Illness meetings in the 1990s, concerned about their son’s well-being, and Severance was “not happy at all” that they had done so. He said it was difficult for relatives to forcibly commit a loved one to a mental health institution, and, “I had no real reason to commit him.”
The defense portion of Severance’s case is expected to last several more days and encompass a wide variety of topics.
Defense attorneys, for example, had previously said they might seek to point the finger at another suspect — Nancy Dunning’s late husband, former Alexandria sheriff James Dunning, who had a tumultuous relationship with his wife. Perhaps laying the groundwork in the case, Severance’s parents and sister disputed Wednesday that Severance was the man caught on surveillance video possibly following Nancy Dunning at a Target store shortly before she was killed.
The trial could be completed before the end of the month.