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Trial delay in 'legally dead' kidnapping case

JACKSON, Miss. -- A judge said he is postponing the trial of a man who disappeared and was declared dead, only to resurface years later as a suspect in the slayings of his girlfriend and her daughter, because federal budget cuts are hampering the publicly funded defense team.

U.S. District Judge Dee Drell in Alexandria, La., said in a court order that public defenders can't afford expenses for the complex, death-penalty trial because of automatic spending cuts known as sequestration, which took effect in March.

Thomas Steven Sanders' trial had been set for Aug. 26 in Alexandria, where he's charged in 12-year-old Lexis Roberts' kidnapping death. Hunters found the child's body in the woods in Catahoula Parish, La., in October 2010. She had been shot and her throat was cut. Sanders was arrested in Gulfport, Miss., the following month.

Authorities said he confessed and directed them to the body of Suellen Roberts, who was his girlfriend and the child's mother, in Yavapai County, Ariz.

Drell said he will set a new trial date during a status conference scheduled for July 19.

Drell's ruling on June 14 said the inability of the legislative and executive branches of government to resolve budget cuts has "seriously constrained the capacity of the judicial system to have this case disposed of by trial."

Drell said there was no choice but to continue the trial.

"In doing so, we are compelled to inquire of our sister branches (of government) as to whether the inability to handle the fiscal functions of government is any way to run a railroad," Drell wrote.

Defense attorneys requested the trial delay, saying it will be costly to argue several pretrial motions, including allegations of racial disparities in the way juries are selected in Louisiana and the "arbitrary and discriminatory nature of the federal death penalty."

The trial had been scheduled in the last six weeks of the fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30. The defense wants to take up pretrial motions during that time and have the trial later, so the costs can be spread out over two fiscal years.

"In this way, the risk that there will not be sufficient funds to proceed with a case of this magnitude can be avoided, a risk that is unavoidable if the case is tried during the last six weeks of one of the worst fiscal years in the history of the Federal Judicial Branch," Sanders' attorneys wrote in a court filing.

A spokeswoman for the U.S. attorney's office involved in the case did not immediately respond to a message.

Sanders has been jailed since his arrest.

Sanders walked away from his family in Mississippi in 1987, and they didn't hear for him for years. His parents, brother and ex-wife petitioned a Pike County, Miss., court in July 1994 to have him declared dead.

According to court documents, Sanders was living at a storage facility in Las Vegas when he met Suellen Roberts. A relationship developed and they planned to take her daughter on a trip to Bearizona, a wildlife park near the Grand Canyon, for the Labor Day weekend in 2010.

On their way back to Nevada, Sanders pulled over in the desert "ostensibly so Suellen could shoot his .22 rifle," but instead he shot her in the head, court records said.

Court records said Sanders then took Lexis, in hysterics after seeing her mother killed, to a wooded area in Louisiana, where he allegedly killed her too.

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