Veteran Virginia Prosecutors Will Handle Sniper Cases

With seven decades of experience between them, the Virginia prosecutors who will seek the death penalty against the two sniper suspects are no strangers to high-profile cases.

Fairfax County prosecutor Robert Horan Jr., an unapologetically blunt and hardcharging ex-Marine, secured the death penalty for a Pakistani who murdered two CIA employees in a case that attracted international attention. Aimal Khan Kasi's execution is set for Thursday.

Prosecutor Paul Ebert of Prince William County has sent 10 people to death row -- twice as many as Horan -- since capital punishment resumed here in 1976, but he is perhaps best known for a trial he lost: the Lorena Bobbitt penis-slashing case.

U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft cited the prosecutors' experience in capital murder cases as one of the reasons for putting John Muhammad and John Lee Malvo on trial in Virginia.

"It's an awesome burden, but we accept it readily," Ebert said Friday.

Ebert will prosecute Muhammad, 41, for the Oct. 9 slaying of Dean Meyers, 53, who was shot while pumping gas in Manassas.

Horan will handle the case against the 17-year-old Malvo, charged with the Oct. 14 shooting death of 47-year-old Linda Franklin outside a Home Depot in Falls Church.

Defense attorneys who have battled Horan and Ebert in court said Ashcroft's confidence in them is well-placed.

"They are both meticulous as far as preparation," said Lisa Kemler, who defended Bobbitt in her 1994 trial. "They certainly know their way around a courtroom and can speak in a very down-to-earth way to jurors."

Blair Howard, another member of the Bobbitt defense team who has gone up against Horan through the years, described both prosecutors as tough, smart, aggressive and highly effective. But he said their styles differ.

He said Horan is like a chess master who plots his moves far in advance.

"He's a tactician, and he very, very carefully and methodically thinks through the big picture," Howard said. He said Horan questions witnesses in a way that "lays a minefield so that no matter which way the defense turns, they're in trouble."

Ebert, on the other hand, charms jurors with a down-home style that cuts through the legal mumbo-jumbo.

"The reason it's so effective with him is that it's not a put-on," Howard said. "Ebert is a `what you see is what you get' kind of fellow."

Only Richmond has sent more killers to Virginia's death row than Prince William County, where Ebert has been the chief prosecutor for 34 years. In 1998, he received an award for Outstanding Advocacy in Capital Cases from the Association of Government Attorneys in Capital Litigation.

Ebert, 64, said death penalty cases are just part of the job. The number of successful capital murder prosecutions in Prince William County is "a dubious distinction," he said, adding that he never lobbied federal authorities for the Malvo case.

"I'm ready, willing and able to do my job. That's all I ever said," Ebert said.

Ebert's eagerness over the years to personally handle the county's most notorious cases is what put him the courtroom for the Bobbitt trial, which was broadcast on Court TV and provided a steady supply of material for late-night comedy monologues.

Bobbitt, charged with maliciously wounding her husband, was acquitted by reason of insanity.

"The Lorena Bobbitt case changed my opinion on cameras in the courtroom," Ebert said. "Some witnesses tend to ham it up. Some people actually change their stories. Some people are intimidated by the fact that TV cameras are rolling."

Horan, 70, grew up in an Irish Catholic section of New Brunswick, N.J. He said he learned to argue in dinnertime discussions with his father, a bookkeeper who wanted to go to law school but couldn't afford it. He has been a commonwealth's attorney for 36 years, longer than anyone in Virginia.

A retired Marine lieutenant colonel, he relishes courtroom battles and disdains the administrative duties of managing a large office.

Before the Kasi case, perhaps the biggest case he handled was that of James Breeden, who was convicted in 1976 of executing four people and wounding one in a fast-food restaurant's walk-in freezer. Breeden was sentenced to five life terms.