Muhammad faces aggressive longtime prosecutor in Va.

Paul Ebert has sent 12 to death row in 35 years in Prince William post

October 12, 2003|By Stephen Kiehl | Stephen Kiehl,SUN STAFF

MANASSAS, Va. - Paul B. Ebert, Prince William County's chief prosecutor for more than three decades, boasts that his aggressive approach has sent a clear message to violent criminals heading into his jurisdiction: Don't even think about it.

"They think we're tough on crime," Ebert says, quickly adding that it's true. "The criminal element and those folks who go from jurisdiction to jurisdiction know not to come into Virginia, and even more so they know not to come into this county."

John Allen Muhammad, the prosecutor figures, must not have gotten the message. Ebert is leading the case against Muhammad - who goes on trial this week for one of the 10 sniper killings that terrified the Washington region one year ago - and he will be satisfied with nothing less than death.

Ebert's track record should give Muhammad pause. He has been the commonwealth's attorney since 1968 and has sent a dozen people to death row - more than any other prosecutor in Virginia. He aims to make John Allen Muhammad No. 13.

"In my experience, there has never been a more heinous crime," Ebert said in a recent interview. "The randomness of his killing and the number of killings, the sheer callousness of the acts of the defendant, to my way of thinking, justifies seeking the death penalty."

Lawyers who have sparred with Ebert attribute his success to an easy, folksy manner in the courtroom that sits well with jurors. Ebert wears rumpled suits that seem straight out of the dryer and speaks in a slow country drawl that at times seems barely intelligible.

"I'm really just a country boy," he said, sitting in his office adorned with large, colorful models of ducks and fish, along with a calendar of hunting dogs. Ebert, a native Virginian, is an avid fisher and hunter of ducks and water fowl.

He often goes fishing with his counterpart in Fairfax County, prosecutor Robert F. Horan Jr., who says Ebert is a consummate professional not only in the courtroom, but also on a boat, where he has an uncanny knack for hooking fish anywhere.

"I consider going out with him going out with a master," Horan said. He recalled days when people who fish for a living couldn't get a nibble but when under Ebert's guidance, the two prosecutors returned to land with boxes of fish.

Ebert, 65, was born in Roanoke but he grew up in suburban Falls Church, where his father was a dentist and his mother a homemaker - hardly the Southern heritage his voice and manner suggest. But he spent summers on his grandfather's farm in Loudoun County, making hay and tending to the cattle.

It is clear he prefers the country life. After putting himself through night school at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University and getting a law degree from George Washington University, he took a job with a Falls Church firm and jumped at the chance to move to their Manassas office in Prince William County, a rural outpost with 50,000 people at the time.

"When I came here, it was all farmers," Ebert said. "One of the things I liked about it was it was close to a rural area and there were a lot of dairy farms."

He soon left private practice to take a job with the commonwealth attorney's office to get trial experience. In short order, the commonwealth's attorney was elected to the state Senate, and Ebert ran for his seat and was elected. He was 29 years old. He has held the job since.

Although the county has boomed to a population of 300,000, the residents have retained a conservative, rural sensibility that plays to Ebert's strengths.

"He's a good old boy from way back," said E. Blair Brown, an Alexandria defense lawyer who has often sat opposite Ebert in court. "We so frequently dismiss someone who talks slightly slow and slightly Southern as not being altogether there. But he's no dummy."

Brown described Ebert as "tough and fair" and said he doesn't go for the death penalty to get on the news or to showboat. Ebert does it, Brown said, when it is warranted.

Brown also knows Muhammad's two defense attorneys, Jonathan Shapiro and Peter D. Greenspun, and he said they're in for quite a fight.

"They're tough advocates, but they're going to have their hands full because they're two Northern boys coming down into our part of the country," Brown said. "Even when you can't understand Paul Ebert, you better pay attention because the next word may matter."

Ebert says he has little interest in the machinations of the death penalty and how it is carried out, and doesn't go to the executions of the men he has sent to death row. Nine of them are dead, but Ebert can't recall the figure when asked.

"I don't count 'em," he said. "It doesn't basically do anything for me to seek the death penalty. I don't want to witness an execution. Having the death penalty is just a mechanism of the law that I'm sworn to uphold."

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