Jury convicts man in northern Virginia triple murder case

AP News
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Posted: Nov 02, 2015 6:07 PM
Jury convicts man in northern Virginia triple murder case

FAIRFAX, Va. (AP) — A jury convicted a Virginia man of murder Monday, finding that he fatally shot three prominent Alexandria residents in their homes over the course of a decade as part of a longstanding grudge against the city.

"The reign of the Alexandria assassin is over," Commonwealth's Attorney Bryan Porter told reporters outside court after a jury recommended the maximum possible sentence: three life terms plus 48 years.

Charles Severance, 55, of Ashburn, was convicted on all 10 counts in the deaths of Nancy Dunning, wife of then-Sheriff James Dunning, in 2003; transportation planner Ron Kirby in 2013 and music teacher Ruthanne Lodato last year. He was also convicted in the shooting of a caregiver in the Lodato home who survived.

Severance is a former Alexandria resident and fringe candidate for political office with a history of erratic behavior. Prosecutors say Severance wanted revenge against what he perceived as the city's elite after losing a child-custody case there. On Monday, Severance, in a wheelchair with a bad ankle, stared straight ahead as verdict was read, as he did for much of the trial.

When he left the courtroom, though, he raised his eyebrows in recognition at his parents, who have attended the entire monthlong trial.

In a statement to The Associated Press, Severance's father, Stan Severance, a retired Navy admiral, expressed his sympathies to the victims' families.

"A jury of his peers has rendered a verdict, and we respect the verdict," he said.

Defense lawyers argued that authorities jumped to conclusions about Severance because of his mental illness and violence-tinged writings.

Chris Leibig, one of his attorneys, said after the verdict that Severance will appeal.

Prosecutors said from the outset they would not seek the death penalty. As a result, under Virginia law, Severance will be automatically sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

The conviction — after about two full days of deliberations — closed a chapter on a series of killings that frightened and flummoxed Alexandria residents. The death of Nancy Dunning went unsolved for more than a decade, frustrating police. For years, James Dunning was suspected but never charged. He died in 2012, a cloud of suspicion still hanging over him.

After the trial, the Dunnings' daughter, Elizabeth Dunning, said her gratitude for the verdict is "mixed with anguish" because her father is not alive and "finally feeling the weight of cruel and unfair suspicion being lifted from his shoulders."

In a victim-impact statement to the jury, she said that her kids call their grandmother, who died before they were born, "Grandma Happy Face" because she's smiling in family pictures.

Prosecutors obtained the conviction without forensic evidence linking Severance to the crime, but with what Porter called a mountain of circumstantial evidence. Much of it came from Severance's own hand, in the form of thousands of pages of violent journal writings justifying murder as revenge for the loss of his son, Levite. An Alexandria judge denied Severance custody of the child when the boy was a baby, and witnesses testified that Severance seethed for more than a decade.

In one passage, titled "Parable of the Knocker," Severance seemed to describe exactly the conduct in the killings, in which the three victims were shot in their homes in broad daylight: "Knock and the door will open. Knock. Talk. Enter. Kill. Exit. Murder. Wisdom." In another passage, he wrote, "Received no satisfaction after revenge killing."

Ron Kirby's ex-wife, Molly Kirby, testified that her former husband "did not fit the rantings we all heard. ... He was not an elite or an elitist. ... He believed every person was as good as the next."

Kirby's widow, Anne Haynes, wept as she described her romance with her husband. "We talked about growing old together. Now I guess I will grow old alone," she said.

Members of the Lodato family expressed appreciation for the bravery of Dorcas Franko, a caregiver in the Lodato home. Even after she had been shot in the arm, Franko ran back into the home to retrieve Lodato's 89-year-old mother.

Before the trial, Franko had never definitively identified Severance as her attacker. At the trial, she positively identified him after being pressed on the issue under cross-examination from defense attorneys.

Defense lawyers presented testimony that Severance had suffered from paranoia and had been diagnosed in the past as schizophrenic. But they didn't try to put on an insanity defense. Instead, they argued that Severance's mental illness helped explain the nature of his writings and his effort to seek asylum at the Russian Embassy when Alexandria detectives first tried to question him about the killings in March 2014.

Severance will be formally sentenced in January.