UPDATED: Nov. 2, 2015 7:41 p.m.
FAIRFAX, Va. (WNEW/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.
Charles Severance, 55, of Ashburn, was convicted on all 10 counts in connection with 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, as well as several gun-related charges.
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.
The only times Severance acknowledged anyone else in the courtroom, other than his lawyers, was when he would be wheeled in. WNEW’s Cameron Thompson reports Severance would look to his parents, who were usually seated behind him, and acknowledge them with a raise of his eyebrows.
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, adding that the family will “continue on.”
But defense lawyers argued that authorities jumped to conclusions about Severance because of his mental illness and violence-tinged writings, and said they would appeal the convictions.
The 10 guilty counts include two convictions on counts of capital murder, but prosecutors have already indicated they will 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.
“Our relief today is mixed with anguish that our dad is not here standing beside us,” said the Dunnings’ daughter, Elizabeth, outside the courthouse. “Finally feeling the weight of cruel and unfair suspicion being lifted from his shoulders that had already carried a too-heavy load.”
Although Severance’s sentence will be automatic, the trial moved Monday into a sentencing phase, giving family members the opportunity to offer victim-impact testimony.
3 life sentences for the 3 murders #CharlesSeverance was found guilty of and $100,000 fine for each.— Cam Thompson (@CamThompsonCBS6) November 2, 2015
Sentencing date for #CharlesSeverance set for January 22 at 10 a.m.— Cam Thompson (@CamThompsonCBS6) November 2, 2015
Dunning said that even though her kids were born after their grandmother’s death, they call her “Grandma Happy Face” because she’s smiling in family pictures.
Dunning thanked jurors for their verdict. “My family long ago stopped believing this day would come,” she said.
Prosecutors obtained the conviction without forensic evidence linking Severance to the crime, but with what Commonwealth’s Attorney Bryan 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.
Late Thursday afternoon, the jury formally returned with its recommended sentence: three life terms plus 48 years, plus $400,000 in fines — the absolute maximum it could impose. He will be formally sentenced by the judge in January.
During the trial, 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.
The Alexandria Police Department released the following statement on the verdict:
APD Chief Earl Cook's statement regarding return of 10 guilty counts in Severance trial. pic.twitter.com/lpQ3jayzRW— Alexandria Police (@AlexandriaVAPD) November 2, 2015
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