The parents of the man on trial for the murders of three prominent Alexandria citizens took the stand as the defense began its case Wednesday, hoping to convince jurors the defendant is wrongly accused.
Severance is on trial in the fatal shootings of Nancy Dunning in 2003, Ron Kirby in 2013 and Ruthanne Lodato in 2014.
The defense team is trying to show Severance's violent writings and rants were a product of mental health issues but not evidence that he's a killer.
His father, Adm. Stan Severance, testified it wasn't until his son's late teen years that he and his wife began to notice mental health issues. He told defense attorneys he and his wife urged Severance to get help but he refused.
Stan Severance testified his son's rambling writings and often disjointed speech were features of his mental illness. Prosecutors say they reveal his motive.
Stan Severance conceded his son would get agitated when the topic of the Alexandria child custody battle he lost came up.
"I'd try to calm him down and talk about sports," Stan Severance said.
The defendant's father grew testy when prosecutor Bryan Porter pushed hard about his son's behavior.
"Would you agree he has a quick temper?" Porter asked.
"He can have, yes," Stan Severance replied.
"Would you agree he had a strong hatred for police officers?" the prosecutor asked.
"Dislike, yes," the father said.
"Did you ever hear him say the only good cop is a dead cop?" Porter asked.
"Yes," Stan Severance said.
"Wouldn't you characterize that as hatred?"
Defense attorneys also turned to Severance's dad to question a key piece of prosecution evidence: A Target security video that shows a man resembling Severance trailing Nancy Dunning just before she was shot to death in her home.
Stan Severance said that man is not his son and said another picture shows what his son looked like in 2003.
Severance's mother, Virginia, followed her husband to the witness stand. She too saw signs of mental instability in her son. In 1988 her son went to a clinic and indicated he was suicidal. She got a call from a social worker who wanted to warn her Severance could be a threat because he said he didn't like his parents and wished he was dead. Virginia Severance testified she never spoke to her son about the call.
"Truly, I thought this was an unqualified person making decisions about my son," she said.
The day's final witness, Severance's youngest sister, added more weight to the defense contention that the Target video does not show Charles Severance stalking victim Dunning.
"Charlie kind of lived off the grid," Sophie Grasmeder testified.
Her brother didn't even have a cellphone in 2003, she said. The man in the video is seen using a cellphone.
The defense also called memory expert Dr. Deryn Strange, a professor and cognitive psychologist specializing in memory distortion during traumatic experiences, to raise questions about the recall of Jeanette Franko, the caregiver who survived the February 2014 shooting of Lodato.
Franko's memory of the man was used to create a composite sketch showing a much different beard than the defendant's. But as the trial opened, she pointed to Severance in court as the man who shot her.
Strange suggested that in a traumatic event, remembering facial features can be unreliable.
"During a highly traumatic experience, your attention is going to narrow to the most important thing at that moment," Strange said. "The most important thing if a weapon is present is on the gun."
Earlier Wednesday, Judge Randy Bellows rejected the defense request to strike the charges against Severance.
The evidence he cited included video from a security camera near Lodato's home. It shows Severance's 1999 red Ford Escort leaving the neighborhood headed toward I-395 just after Lodato was killed and Franko, her mother's caregiver, was wounded Feb. 6, 2014, according to the prosecution.
Detectives testified they tracked 32 other 1999 Escorts, but none had the same round sticker seen on the car in the video. The prosecution had also presented the bumper of Severance's car for comparison, complete with a round sticker.
Prosecutors have said that Severance -- a former Alexandria resident with a history of erratic behavior -- committed the killings as revenge against what he perceived as the city's ruling class after losing custody of his son, Levite. During opening statements earlier this month, a prosecutor said Severance lived near the victims when he lost custody of Levite, and developed hatred toward courts and the "elite."