Oct. 21, 2015
The family of Charles Severance testified Wednesday about the man they call Charlie. They shared personal anecdotes about how they coped with his sometimes disruptive behavior and offered details about the life a man who so far has been portrayed only by the script of prosecutors and police.
Severance's father was in the Navy and the family moved frequently. A young Severance, studying math and physics, didn't tell his parents when he decided to drop out of college and invested his tuition money.
They described his struggles with mental illness and his sporadic work history.
Here is a recap of Wednesday's testimony as Severance's trial continues.
New details emerge as Severance's family takes stand
The family of Charles Severance revealed new personal details about the man charged with killing three Alexandria residents during the span of more than 10 years.
To date, most of what has become publicly known about Severance has come through the lens of prosecutors and police, portraying Severance as an angry man who glorified violence and sought revenge for losing custody of his son in 2001.
Prosecutors hammered home their theory that revenge and anger motivated Severance to kill Nancy Dunning, Ron Kirby and Ruthanne Lodato, by having an Alexandria detective read from page after page of Severance's writings during their final full day of testimony Tuesday.
But Wednesday, members of Severance's immediate family took the stand.
His sister Sophie Grasmeder told the jury that her brother was outspoken and that he was barred from some family gatherings because he could be disruptive.
He didn't use a cellphone and was living "off the grid" at the time of Dunning's 2003 murder, Grasmeder said.
Severance is also an "avid" fan of the reality TV show "Survivor," his father Stan Severance told the court. The two would watch the weekly episodes together.
And his mother Virginia Severance told the jury that her son would send "hundreds of postcards" to his family when he was traveling.
Severance's defense attorneys have said previously that Severance enjoyed traveling to historical sites especially those related to the early American frontier in Ohio, West Virginia and Kentucky. He was fascinated by history, they've said.
His family also described Severance's spotty work history and how he has struggled with mental illness.
Severance has not allowed a psychologist to speak to him and he is not using insanity as a defense in his trial.
Sister of charged Alexandria killer: 'Charlie' lived off the grid, didn't own cellphone
Members of Charles Severance's family told a Fairfax County jury Wednesday that the man seen in surveillance video while Nancy Dunning shopped shortly before her 2003 death was not Severance.
His mother, father and sister each testified that the man wearing jeans and a dark jacket talking on a cellphone in the Target video could not have been the man they call "Charlie."
His mother, Virginia Severance, told the jury that the man in the video had different body language and didn't have her son's smile.
Sophie Grasmeder, Severance's sister, testified that her brother didn't have a cellphone when the video was taken in December 2003.
"Charlie kind of lived off the grid," Grasmeder said.
When shown still photos from the surveillance footage, Stan Severance said repeatedly that none were of his son.
Last week, prosecutors presented side-by-side comparisons of older photos of Severance and the stills from the surveillance video. Investigators believe the man was Severance. Nancy Dunning was found dead inside her Alexandria home not long after she left the Target.
Severance is charged with Dunning's murder and with killing Ron Kirby in 2013 and Ruthanne Lodato in 2014.
Charles Severance's father took the stand Wednesday and was among the first witnesses to testify on behalf of the defense in a trial expected to last six weeks.
Dressed in a wool suit with a blue and red striped tie, Stan Severance described his 55-year-old son's struggle with his mental health over the years — concerns that continue to this day, he said.
The elder Severance, age 83, is a retired two-star Navy admiral and has attended his son's trial daily with his wife Virginia. The family moved 26 times during his thee-decade naval career, he said. They now live in Northern Virginia and allowed their son to stay with them for two-week intervals because of his disruptive behavior.
Stan Severance told the jury that his son sought medical care multiple times and has attended support meetings.
He described his son's disjointed thought process.
"He will run sentences together and shift subject practically mid-sentence," Stan Severance said.
The younger Severance attended the University of Virginia and has had multiple, but sporadic jobs over the years. His last job was as a postal worker in 2000, his father testified.
Severance's defense team has previously said that Severance had paranoid tendencies, which result in seemingly bizarre behavior. Severance is not using insanity as a defense. Severance is charged with killing Nancy Dunning in 2003, Ron Kirby in 2013 and Ruthanne Lodato in 2014 — all Alexandria residents with deep ties to the community.
Defense attorney Joe King asked the elder Severance to identify a man seen in surveillance video from an Alexandria Target, where Nancy Dunning went shopping shortly before she was gunned down at the front door of her home.
Stan Severance told the court that the man in the dark jacket is not his son.
Prosecutors believe the man in the video is Severance as he appeared more than a decade ago without a beard and short-cropped brown hair.
Other members of Severance's family is expected to testify as the trial continues.
Judge Randy Bellows denied a motion to dismiss all 10 counts against Charles Severance, who is charged with murdering three Alexandria residents during a span of more than a decade.
Some family members of the three victims became emotional as Chris Leibig, one of Severance's attorneys, argued that prosecutors did not present enough evidence to prove Severance killed Ruthanne Lodato, Ron Kirby or Nancy Dunning, and that prosecutors did not prove that Severance ever had a gun while in the city of Alexandria.
Severance, a convicted felon, is not legally permitted to have a gun.
The prosecution has rested its case and the trial continues with the first witness for the defense: a memory expert.
Severance's defense team is expected to portray Severance as a man who has previously struggled with paranoid tendencies, which explains his seemingly bizarre behavior. They say his writings included historical research and were notes for games that Severance developed.
Charles Severance's defense team has asked a Fairfax County judge to dismiss all 10 counts against the former Alexandria resident.
Defense attorneys argued that prosecutors did not definitively place Severance at any of the three crimes scenes nor present enough evidence to support the charges that Severance killed three city residents.
Defense attorneys cite the lack of DNA evidence, what they consider weak ballistic evidence and they question whether the lone witness to one of the shootings identified the correct man as the shooter. They also say police never actually caught Severance in possession of any guns. The guns used in the three shootings have never been found.
Severance is charged with killing Nancy Dunning in 2003, Ron Kirby in 2013 and Ruthanne Lodato in 2014. He is also charged with shooting and injuring Dorcas Franko, who identified Severance in court as the man who shot her.
Franko cared for Lodato's mother, who was also in the home that morning but was not injured.
During her emotional testimony, Franko was questioned by Severance's legal team about the size, shape and bushiness of the beard of the man who shot her. A sketch developed based on Franko's description of her attacker depicted a short, leaner beard than the beard Severance wears.
At the time the sketch was released, one day after Lodato was killed, police described her assailant as an older white, balding man with a gray beard.
— WTOP's Megan Cloherty contributed to this report from Fairfax, Va.