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Good intentions and one awful idea

August 14, 2005|By Bob Maginnis

You've seen the scene repeated a couple of hundred times, videotaped in places where they allow cameras in the courtroom.

The defendant's mother, surrounded by her grown children, waits as the jury enters. She grips their hands, steeling herself for whatever may come.

The foreman rises and reads the verdict.

"Your honor," he says, "We find the defendant guilty as charged."

"No," she cries, and her tears begin and sudddenly her grief is a weight that's so heavy that her other children must hold her to prevent her from falling.

It is a scene so affecting that the viewer begins to wonder whether there has been a terrible miscarriage of justice. But the segment continues and the TV reporter recounts the evidence - perhaps a fingerprint, a bloody footprint or an eyewitness.

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It's damning stuff. And yet the family sat there, hoping against hope for a judicial miracle, for one more chance for a happy ending.

Sometimes, in interviews afterward, the family members acknowledge that the defendant got off on the wrong path, falling in with a bad crowd or succumbing to drug abuse.

Invariably, in those interviews, there is a moment when they talk about how sweet a little child he was, way back when - respectful, polite and a joy to be around.

They talk about those times because that's what they want to remember and want everyone else to remember, too. They want us to know the defendant wasn't always a bad person, even though he turned out that way.

Once upon a time, a long time ago, he was a good boy and that's the way they choose to remember him.

I have never met the family of convicted murderer Russell Wayne Wagner, but I am certain that is why they wanted his ashes interred at Arlington National Cemetery.

I'm sure they did not do what they did to dishonor the heroes buried there or to cause more grief to the families of the victims, Daniel and Wilda Davis.

The Davises, a Hagerstown couple in their 80s, were tied up and stabbed to death in February of 1994.

Wagner was tried in Garrett County in 1996, but the jury failed to reach a verdict. He was re-indicted in 2001.

At his second trial, FBI agent John Stewart testified that a hair found on a bloody glove found in the street had DNA similar to Wagner's. He was found guilty in August of 2002.

In February of this year, Wagner died in prison.

What happened then was the subject of a great story by David Dishneau of The Associated Press.

The story said that Wagner's remains were unclaimed - at that point - and as such went to the State Anatomy Board, which would cremate them for eventual burial in a cemetery for paupers in Sykesville, Md.

But then Roland S. Wade, director of board, got an e-mail from Wagner's brother-in-law, Bill Anderson. Wade said that Anderson told him that the family couldn't afford a funeral, but wanted the ashes.

Wade said Anderson told him that they would be spread around Hagerstown, at the request of Wagner's invalid diabetic sister.

Wade took pity on the family, waived the customary fee and released the ashes to the Andersons. In June, Anderson's wife arranged for the interment at Arlington.

To my knowledge, no press release was issued and no announcement was made, except perhaps to the immediate family. But then someone found out and now the story has gone nationwide and members of Congress are questioning how it happened and vowing that it will never happen again.

Was it the wrong thing to do?

Absolutely. No compassionate person who has ever talked to the Davises' relatives, as I have, would ever want to add to the grief they've endured for more than 10 years over this case. And this incident has brought it all back again with a vengeance.

I don't believe the Andersons intended that, but we all know that the road to you-know-where is paved with good intentions.

I first heard that expression when I was a child. The other thing I heard was that you shouldn't ever do anything you wouldn't want to see written about on the front page of your hometown newspaper.

Well, how about every newspaper in the country? How about the possibility that you'll get to be on TV if some member of Congress subpoenas you just to prove he's a serious guy?

As I said, I think I understand why they did it, but somebody should have told them what an awful idea it was before it was carried out. Now that it has been, of course, they will be getting that message from all over the world, and probably not from anyone who's willing to try to understand why.

Bob Maginnis is editorial page editor of The Herald-Mail newspapers.

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