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Defense fails to toss federal charges in case where man accused of kidnapping and killing girl

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ALEXANDRIA, Louisiana — Jurors will hear closing arguments Monday in the case of a Mississippi man who was declared dead two decades ago, only to resurface as a murder suspect.

Prosecutors concluded their case against Thomas Steven Sanders Friday, and defense lawyers called no witnesses after failing to get the case thrown out of federal court.

U.S. District Judge Dee Drell denied a defense motion for acquittal, turning away arguments that the charges — kidnapping resulting in death and using a firearm in a crime of violence that caused a person's death — should be heard in state court.

"The issue is we're in the wrong court," defense attorney Marty Stroud unsuccessfully argued to Drell. "These crimes are local crimes."

Stroud said the prosecution failed to meet requirements for federal prosecution by proving Sanders acted with reward, ransom or some other purpose in mind when he transported 12-year-old Lexis Roberts across state lines in 2010.

Prosecutor Bill Flanagan argued that taking and killing the only witness to the death of Suellen Roberts — Lexis' mother — showed clear purpose.

"This crime certainly could have been prosecuted by the State of Louisiana," Flanagan said. "It also can be prosecuted by the United States."

Drell said the defense can make the same argument during closing statements and allow the jury to decide. The defense then rested its case without calling any witnesses.

Prosecutors say Sanders kidnapped Lexis Roberts, killing her and dumping her body in Catahoula Parish. Some of the interviews taped after Sanders was arrested by FBI agents in Gulfport, Mississippi in November 2010 were taped and played to the jury Thursday, with Sanders admitting "I shot both of them, killed both of them."

Prosecutors have said Sanders shot Suellen Roberts on a trip all three took to a wildlife park in Arizona, then drove Lexis Roberts to Louisiana, where he shot her four times and cut her throat. They said after visiting a wildlife refuge known as Bearizona and stopping at the Grand Canyon, the trio pulled into a remote stretch of desert off an interstate so Suellen Roberts could shoot Sanders' .22-caliber rifle. Instead, Sanders shot the mother in the head while her daughter sat on a blanket nearby, Flanagan said.

Sanders left the body where it fell and drove Lexis Roberts over several days to northeast Louisiana, where he shot her three times in the head and once in the chest, the prosecutor said. With the girl still alive, prosecutors said Sanders then cut her throat with a knife. Two experts testified Friday that DNA from the blade of a knife found in Sanders' possession matched DNA samples taken from Lexis Roberts' remains.

Sanders was identified as a suspect long after he was thought dead. Sanders had left his family in Mississippi in 1987, and his relatives and ex-wife had him declared dead in 1994 after he had been missing for years.

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