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Mikulski to push for review of burial rules

August 11, 2005|by TAMELA BAKER

WASHINGTON

tammyb@herald-mail.com

U.S. Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., said Wednesday she will press for a review of regulations for military burials as a result of the inurnment at Arlington National Cemetery of the remains of a man convicted in the 1994 killings of a Hagerstown couple.

Mikulski's office was contacted this week by the victims' son, Vernon G. Davis of Hagerstown.

"My thoughts and prayers go out to the Davis family; this is obviously a difficult time for them," Mikulski said in a statement to The Herald-Mail. "I believe we need to review this situation and determine how we can better handle similar situations in the future. That's what I'm going to do - working with the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee and veterans' organizations."

The Senate committee plans to review the regulations after Congress returns Sept. 6 from its summer recess.

The House Committee on Veterans' Affairs likely will take up the issue as well, according to a spokeswoman for committee Chairman Steve Buyer, R-Ind.

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Laura Zuckerman, Buyer's press secretary, said Wednesday that Buyer was aware of the controversy.

"From our perspective, it's worthy of review," she said.

Russell Wayne Wagner, a Vietnam-era Army veteran, was serving two consecutive life sentences at the Maryland House of Correction Annex in Jessup for the stabbing deaths of Daniel Davis, 84, and his wife, Wilda, 80, when he died from a heroin overdose in February.

His cremated remains were placed at Arlington on July 27.

Despite protests from the Davis family, a U.S. Army spokeswoman said last week that Wagner's remains would not be removed because his sentence had allowed for the possibility of parole.

But the very law that allowed for Wagner's inurnment could set the precedent for the review.

With the death sentence of convicted Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh for the attack on the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building, Congress moved in 1997 to prevent McVeigh, a decorated Desert Storm veteran, from being buried in a national cemetery. The 1995 bombing killed 168.

Originally introduced by U.S. Rep. Spencer Bachus, R-Ala., as a separate bill dubbed the "American Hero Protection Act," the bill stipulated that "The Secretary of Defense and the Secretary of Transportation, with respect to the Coast Guard when it is not operating as a service in the Navy, may not provide military honors at the funeral of a person who has been convicted of a crime under State or Federal law for which death is a possible punishment and sentenced to death or life imprisonment without parole.

"A person described in subsection (a) is not eligible for burial in a national cemetery or for any burial benefit provided by the Secretary of Veterans Affairs under chapter 23 of title 38, United States Code."

Those provisions were later amended into the National Defense Authorization Act for fiscal years 1998 and 1999, signed by President Clinton on Nov. 18, 1997.

McVeigh was executed by lethal injection June 11, 2001, at the federal prison in Terre Haute, Ind.

Vernon Davis said Wednesday he also contacted the office of U.S. Rep. Roscoe Bartlett, R-Md. He cautioned that if Congress chooses to change the law, "somebody's gonna have to look at it carefully to make sure there are no cracks in the floor this time."

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