He'd like people to believe that he's just a good old country boy who happens to be responsible for prosecuting criminals. His trademark "conversations" with juries include frequent calls for people to use their common sense, and some witnesses complain of having trouble understanding his drawl on cross-examinations.

Those who face Prince William County Commonwealth's Attorney Paul B. Ebert in a courtroom say he's far more than just a country boy, and his record in the 34 years since he took office tells a similar story. Ebert may have the demeanor of a southern gentleman, but he's also an aggressive prosecutor.

He has the self-described "dubious distinction" of having sent more murder defendants to die than any of his colleagues -- a dozen since 1976. Ebert says he takes no joy in asking juries to impose death sentences, but he has become the most effective prosecutor in Virginia at getting them to do just that.

That distinction could be exactly why he was selected to try John Allen Muhammad: There have been widespread calls for the ultimate punishment for the sniper suspects.

"The vast majority of cases heard in this county aren't capital cases," Ebert said in a recent interview, leaning back in his chair to a loud squeak. "The death penalty is reserved for the worst of the worst, for those cases that have a chilling effect on society. I don't seek the death penalty in any case unless I think it's the just thing to do."

Ebert, 65, grew up in Falls Church after spending his earliest years on a farm near Roanoke. After graduating from Virginia Tech and getting a law degree from George Washington University in 1963, he took a job in a Manassas law firm. He moved to the commonwealth's attorney's office in 1965, when the county shared judges with Fairfax and Alexandria and had a tiny courthouse.

Now, his office sees thousands of cases a year, in a county that has grown to 300,000 residents, the third-largest jurisdiction in Virginia. Prince William is still often mistaken for a rural outpost, famous largely for a couple of Civil War battles and the Lorena Bobbitt trial.

"But we're seeing the same problems and concerns that some urban areas have," said Ebert, a Democrat. "I like to send the message that if you're going to commit a crime, you should expect to be punished for it. I've heard that on the street, the criminal element avoids Prince William County because they know what happens here."

Ebert's adversaries say he's a fair man who works for justice. They agree that his niche is connecting with juries and describe him as a tough opponent.

He sells himself as a common man who likes to hunt and fish, and his walls are decorated with outdoorsy motifs and plenty of geese. He talks with juries, not at them.

"It was unlike any courtroom that I've ever been in," said John H. Partridge, who defended Justin Michael Wolfe against capital murder and drug charges in Prince William this year. Wolfe was sentenced to death last summer, the first person to face execution in Virginia who didn't actually pull the trigger.

"It's tough to get the upper hand on Ebert," Partridge said. "You realize that he controls the courtroom. He has a folksy way about him that belies how sharp he really is."

In his closing arguments, Ebert almost always asks juries to acquit the defendant if they don't think he's guilty. That always draws cringes from his assistants, who think he should be asking the jury to slam criminals.

"The only thing he ever considers is if it's fair to do what he's doing," said Assistant Commonwealth's Attorney Richard A. Conway, who is working with Ebert on the Muhammad case and has spent 15 years in his office.

Conway, 51, is the office's pit bull, a former police detective who sometimes scowls at defendants in the courtroom as if they've personally offended him. He approaches cases in a methodical way -- much like a police officer -- and takes that passion into the courtroom. Conway, who has prosecuted two death penalty cases successfully, said he believes Muhammad, too, deserves to die.

"The perpetrators of these crimes were exposing the public at large to daily experiences of fear," Conway said. "It's hard to imagine a more heinous crime than these."

James A. Willett, 50, a career prosecutor, has successfully prosecuted six death penalty cases without a loss and will be part of the Muhammad prosecutorial team -- filling out a rare three-attorney prosecution in Prince William. Willett's opening statements are very direct and powerful, and he has a commanding presence in the courtroom. Willett most recently secured a death penalty conviction last summer while prosecuting with Ebert.

"If I have anything to do with it, I will do everything within my power to get justice for the community," Willett said. "We believe very strongly that we are well able to get a just verdict in this case, and that's so important for so many people."

William Stephens, a Manassas defense lawyer who worked under Ebert for a few years in the 1960s, said Ebert's team is composed of three distinct personalities that combine into one of the most talented legal foes he could imagine.

"You'd better be ready," Stephens said of any potential defense. "They're more than formidable."

Sandra Sylvester, who has been prosecuting in Ebert's office since 1988, said she respects Ebert because she believes he does the right thing above all else. She said that his decisions aren't political and that many of his cases personally affect him.

"When he hired me, he said that above all, just do the right thing and you'll know in your heart what that is," Sylvester said. "He said that if you can sleep at night, you'll know you've done that."

"The death penalty is reserved for the worst of the worst," Ebert said. ". . . I don't seek [it] in any case unless I think it's the just thing to do."