Severance Defense Will Include Mental Health Expert

Lawyers for the man charged with killing three Alexandria residents over a 10-year span said Thursday their client is innocent and that his mental illness and paranoia made him the target of unfounded suspicions.

At a pretrial hearing in Fairfax on Thursday, lawyers for Charles Severance won the right to tell jurors about Severance's mental health history at his upcoming murder trial.

Prosecutors say Severance, a former Alexandria resident with a history of erratic behavior, shot and killed three city residents in their homes dating back to 2003. Their evidence includes writings by Severance, 54, glorifying murder and his failed effort to gain asylum at the Russian embassy when police tried to interview him.

Defense lawyers say Severance's writings and behavior are explained by mental illness. 

Prosecutors say Severance is competent. They opposed allowing testimony about Severance's mental health.

A man who called Severance brilliant and said he had exchanged dozens of letters with him said outside the courthouse on Thursday that he believes Severance is innocent.

"You're got to understand that he did not do it. He's too old, too handicapped. He is not capable," Alex Malcyke said.

Defense lawyers say psychologist William Stejskal has diagnosed Severance with a form of schizophrenia, and that the disease helps explain why Severance would seek asylum or write approvingly about committing murders in nice neighborhoods.

At Thursday's hearing, Judge Randy Bellows ruled that the defense can present that evidence to the jury, as long as it meets the typical legal requirements for admissibility. Specifically, he said the defense must show that Stejskal has a valid foundation for believing that Severance is schizophrenic. Bellows said he wants that issue resolved before trial, and that he will strike Stejskal's testimony if it lacks a legal foundation.

Defense attorney Christopher Leibig made clear to Bellows that Severance is not making an insanity defense. Leibig said Severance is innocent, and he claimed prosecutors are trying to bolster a weak case by highlighting Severance's writings and asylum request.

One of Severance's written passages states, "Introduce murder into a safe and secure neighborhood. It shudders with horror. Do it again and again and again.''

Prosecutors oppose Stejskal's testimony, calling it an "insanity-lite'' defense. They say it would allow Severance to bypass certain legal requirements under an insanity claim.

Severance is charged with three slayings over the span of a decade in the city of Alexandria. All three victims were shot in their homes, in broad daylight, in a wealthy, residential neighborhood. They were identified as: Nancy Dunning, wife of then-Sheriff James Dunning, in 2003; transportation planner Ron Kirby in 2013; and music teacher Ruthanne Lodato in 2014.

Prosecutors say Severance was motivated by anger at losing a child custody case in Alexandria and sought revenge at what he perceived as the city's ruling class.

Jury summons will be sent to 150 potential jurors. From those, 100 will be asked to appear in court Oct. 5.

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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