Bill will close parole loophole

October 05, 2005|by TAMELA BAKER


The chairman of the U.S. Senate Committee on Veterans' Affairs has introduced a bill that would prohibit convicted murderers with life sentences from being buried in national cemeteries, regardless of their eligibility for parole.

The bill, introduced by Sen. Larry Craig, R-Idaho, and co-sponsored by Kansas Sens. Sam Brownback and Pat Roberts, "will close the 'parole loophole' in the law that now allows capital offenders to be buried in America's national cemeteries," Craig said in a statement.

The bill was prompted by the case of Russell Wayne Wagner, a Vietnam-era Army veteran whose remains were placed in the columbarium at Arlington National Cemetery in July. Wagner died in February while serving two life sentences for the 1994 murders of Daniel and Wilda Davis in their Hagerstown home.


Daniel Davis was 84; his wife was 80.

While federal law prohibits those sentenced to death or to life without parole from being buried in national cemeteries, Wagner's remains were permitted at Arlington because his sentence allowed the possibility of parole.

Because he was serving two consecutive life sentences, Wagner could have been considered for parole starting in 2024 - assuming he received the maximum time off for good behavior and other credits, Raymond Smith, the operations administrator for the Maryland Parole Commission, has said.

Wagner was honorably discharged from the Army in 1972.

Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., last month filed her own bill to prevent convicted murderers from being buried in national cemeteries.

Her bill simply strikes "without parole" from the current statute, passed in 1997 to prevent convicted Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh from being buried in a national cemetery. McVeigh, a decorated Desert Storm veteran, was executed in 2001 for the 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building, which killed 168.

Craig's bill goes further.

"My legislation will ensure that no one who may be given a life sentence or who may be sentenced to death for murder will be honored at their funerals by the presence of a military funeral detail," Craig's statement said. "We should not bury brutal murderers alongside America's honored dead and we should not provide memorialization benefits to those who have so dishonored themselves through their own post-service conduct."

Wagner received standard military honors during the July inurnment, according to Arlington officials. These services are provided free of charge to veterans' families.

"Let me be clear that while the effect of the legislation would be to take away benefits that were otherwise earned by honorable military service, the intent of it is not punitive," Craig said. "Rather, my intention is to preserve the dignity of America's national cemeteries."

Mikulski spokeswoman Melissa Schwartz said Tuesday that her office and Craig's "have been working together to move this issue forward." She said she didn't know whether Mikulski would also co-sponsor Craig's bill.

Craig filed a bill last month to force the Secretary of the Army to remove Wagner's ashes from Arlington. That bill is now in Craig's committee for review. Wagner's ashes are still at the cemetery, according to Arlington public affairs officer Lori Cavillo.

Del. John Donoghue, D-Washington, had asked through Sen. Paul Sarbanes, D-Md., that Secretary of the Army Francis Harvey order Wagner's remains removed. Donoghue said Tuesday that Harvey had responded to Sarbanes with a letter reiterating that current law prevents removal.

The murders occurred in Donoghue's legislative district.

"I guess now we just have to wait and see what happens with these bills," Donoghue said.

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