FAIRFAX, Va. — The man accused of killing three Alexandria residents over a 10-year span will be able to raise the issue of his mental health at trial even though he is not pursuing an insanity defense.
In a pretrial hearing Thursday, a Fairfax County judge ruled that certain testimony about Charles Severance’s mental issues would be allowed in order to explain his erratic behavior — specifically his attempt at seeking asylum at the Russian embassy in D.C., and his hate-filled writings — at his upcoming murder trial.
Severance’s lawyers said they wanted to be able to rebut what prosecutors would paint as an attempt at fleeing, or evidence of a guilty conscience. Severance maintains he is innocent of the killings, which date back to 2003. Severance’s lawyers say his behavior is explained by schizophrenia and that his mental illness and paranoia made him the target of unfounded suspicions.
Prosecutors derided the use of the mental health testimony as an “insanity-light” defense, but the judge said he would not allow any testimony concerning Severance’s mental health at the time of the killings. Severance had earlier been found competent to stand trial.
The mental health ruling was made by a new judge presiding over the case. Judge Randy Bellows took over after the previous judge, Jane Roush, was appointed to the Virginia Supreme Court.
Bellows also handed rulings to the prosecution allowing a witness’ identification of Severance’s car near a crime scene into evidence, and denying the defense the ability to suggest to the jury that two of the victims were killed by family members because of a lack of evidence to support those claims.
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.
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 said Severance is innocent, and he claimed prosecutors are trying to bolster a weak case by highlighting Severance’s writings and asylum request.
Severance, 54, of Ashburn 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 selection begins in early October and the trial is expected to last 6 weeks.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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