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Judge allows Severance defense to point finger at former Alexandria sheriff

Charles Severance, second from left, and defense attorney Joe King, second from right, appear in one of the final motions hearings at the Fairfax County Circuit Court on Thursday, September 17, 2015, in Fairfax, VA. Severance is accused of three murders over a 10 year period. (Pool Photo by Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post)

WASHINGTON — Defense lawyers for a man accused of killing three Alexandria residents over a 10-year span will be allowed to present evidence that a former sheriff was responsible for one of the deaths.

A forensic psychologist who evaluated Charles Severance also testified about the man’s mental health during a lengthy pretrial hearing Thursday in Fairfax County.

Judge Randy Bellows reversed an earlier ruling and is allowing lawyers for Severance, of Ashburn, to point the finger at Alexandria Sheriff James Dunning, who is now deceased, for the 2003 slaying of Nancy Dunning.

Prosecutors objected, saying the defense theory wrongly drags James Dunning’s name through the mud. Dunning was a suspect in his wife’s killing for years but was never charged.

Authorities now say they believe Severance killed Nancy Dunning and two other prominent Alexandria residents to seek revenge against what he perceived as the city’s ruling class for losing a child custody case.

Last month, Bellows ruled that the defense could not implicate James Dunning unless they showed they had evidence to substantiate the accusation. At Thursday’s hearing, defense lawyer Megan Thomas said that when James Dunning found his wife’s body in their home, he called 911 and said his wife had been murdered, even though nobody had determined at that point that there had been any foul play.

She also cited the suspicions of detectives who focused on James Dunning extensively in their investigation.

Prosecutor Bryan Porter called the accusations against James Dunning filthy and flimsy, saying prosecutors would be laughed out of court if they tried to bring a murder charge on such evidence.

He called the accusations “a character attack and slander against a man who is not able to defend himself,” while Dunning’s daughter, sitting in court, nodded in agreement.

Porter also said it is not suspicious that a man with law-enforcement experience like James Dunning to quickly conclude that his wife had been murdered upon surveying a bloody crime scene.

Bellows, in explaining his decision, made clear that he was not passing judgment on whether he thinks Dunning killed his wife. But he said Severance is entitled to a vigorous defense, and his lawyers should not be barred from presenting alternative theories to a jury, except under exceptional circumstances.

A psychologist also testified that he diagnosed Severance with a personality disorder that has features of mixed paranoia.

Severance refused to meet with Dr. William Stejskal but the forensic psychologist spoke with his friends, family and ex-wife. He also read Severance’s violent and anti-government writings to help make his diagnosis.

Stejskal testified that Severance’s writings show “great hostility and contempt” for law enforcement, government, social workers, liberals, gay people and African Americans.

Bellows, a Fairfax County judge, was appointed to try the case after Alexandria judges recused themselves from the case as Ruthanne Lodato was the sister of a retired Alexandria judge.

Severance is charged with the murders of Lodato, a local music teacher in 2014; Ron Kirby, an influential transportation planner, in 2013; and Dunning in 2003.

Stay with WTOP for updates to this developing story.

WTOP’s Megan Cloherty and The Associated Press contributed to this report from Fairfax, Virginia.

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