The handling of a celebrated 1977 double-murder case involving former real estate agent Richard Lee Earaman has become the major issue in the closely contested and unusually acrimonious Democratic primary for Arlington prosecutor.

Incumbent Commonwealth's Attorney William S. Burroughs, 41, is being challenged by senior county board member John W. Purdy, 48, a Fairfax attorney who claim Burroughs botched the Earman prosecution.

The Winner of Tuesday's primary will face Republican-backed independent Henry Hudson, 31, a former federal prosecutor, in the November general election.

Purdy says Burroughs' mishandling of the controversial murder case is "an embarrassment to Arlington." But he has refused to say what he would have done differently.

Burroughs, in response to Purdy's attacks, has hammered away at what he calls Purdy's lack of courtroom experience and his refusal to be specific about the case.

"Trying to get specifics from John is like trying to nail jello to the wall," said Burroughs, who has spent $6,000 on his campaign, about twice the amount Purdy has spent.

Burroughs has vigorously defended his prosecution of Earman, 36, who was initially acquitted in 1977 of charges that he murdered a yound Arlington Couple. Burroughs directed the murder investigation, a function normally handled by police, and recently succeeded in getting Earman to plead guilty to a murder conspiracy charge.

Complaints by police and others about Burroughs' conduct last year led Virginia Attorney General J. Marshall Coleman to order a state police probe of the case. That investigation cleared Burroughs of criminal misconduct charges, but did little to dispel the lingering bitterness many Arlington police say they feel toward the prosecutor.

Burroughs has said he "felt like the Lone Ranger" because, in his investigation and prosecution of the Earman case, he was castigated as a result of "consistenely inaccurate reporting" and hindered by the state police investigators.

Earman, who recently testified that he shot the couple to death in return for the promise of $15,000 from another man, pleaded guilty to a murder conspiracy charge which carries a 10 year maximum sentence.

In return for his cooperation in the case, Burroughs agreed to let Earman vacation in the Bahamas before he was jailed. Burroughs also is allowing Earman to have a voice in choosing the federal prison where he will serve his sentence.

Some Arlington lawyers and politicians say Purdy may defeat Burroughs because, after seven years on the county board, Purdy is better known to Arlington voters. An estimated 6,000 of Arlington's 72,000 registered voters are expected to turn out, election board officials said.

"Name recognition has got to be a major factor in this race," said John Ariail, president of the Arlington County Bar Association.

Burroughs argues Purdy is unqualified for the $44,500-per-year-job. Since 1974, when Purdy entered private practice, he has handled one criminal jury trial. Purdy disputes Burroughs' claim that he is unqualified, citing his experience as an attorney ofr the Internal Revenue Service and the National Education Association.

Burroughs has also reminded audiences that as a county board member Purdy last year cast the swing vote killing a proposed handgun law. Defeat of that law, which was drafted by Burroughs and would have required registration of handguns, was hailed as a major victory by the National Rifle Association.

Purdy has defended his vote by saying that the law "would have made criminals out of law-abiding citizens" who owned handguns.

Politicans describe the race as one of the most divisive in recent years, with prominent local Demoncrats split in their support of the two candidates.