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Amendment would keep capital offenders out of vets' cemeteries

November 09, 2005|by PEPPER BALLARD

WASHINGTON COUNTY

pepperb@herald-mail.com

Two U.S. senators - a Maryland Democrat and an Idaho Republican - are co-sponsoring a bill amendment that would eliminate burial benefits and funeral honors for any veteran convicted of a federal or state capital offense, regardless of parole eligibility.

Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., wrote a letter to the U.S. Senate Committee on Veterans' Affairs after learning that the cremated remains of convicted double-murderer Russell Wayne Wagner were placed at Arlington National Cemetery in July with standard military honors.

The proposed amendment to the Department of Defense Authorization Bill is co-sponsored by Mikulski and Committee on Veterans' Affairs Chairman Sen. Larry Craig, R-Idaho.

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Mikulski proposed legislation "that would close the loophole for those convicted of a capital crime in a state court," said Melissa Schwartz, Mikulski's spokeswoman. Mikulski's bill proposed striking the phrase "without parole."

Wagner was sentenced in October 2002 by Washington County Circuit Judge Frederick C. Wright III to serve two consecutive life sentences - but was eligible for parole - for the Feb. 14, 1994, murders of Daniel Davis, 84, and Wilda Davis, 80, at their West Wilson Boulevard home in Hagerstown, according to published reports.

Schwartz said Mikulski's bill "was narrow. Her proposal is included into the amendment now."

Schwartz said Tuesday that since the amendment is a bi-partisan co-sponsorship it "really elevates the issue."

"This is the best chance we have to pass this," she said.

The Senate could vote on the bill as early as this week, said Jeff Schrade, Craig's spokesman.

Jonathan Towers, professional staff member with the Republican party, said Tuesday that the theory behind filing the amendment, which has the same language as a bill introduced by Craig and includes Mikulski's proposal, is to contain "all of the funeral related benefits under one bill or amendment ... whatever vehicle is chosen to get this to the president."

"The best way we thought was to push an amendment to the (Department of Defense) bill," he said.

Since Wagner, who died in prison Feb. 7 of a heroin overdose, was eligible for parole, he met the eligibility requirements under federal law to receive a service at the veterans' cemetery, Schrade said.

Under the current law, Vietnam War-era veteran and self-described BTK serial killer Dennis Rader, who was sentenced in Kansas to serve 10 consecutive life terms, also could be eligible for a veterans' burial, Schrade said.

"The way current federal law is written because that state's law allows for the possibility of parole at some point, because at that point that technicality is out there, he could be buried at a veterans' cemetery," he said.

The amendment would close that loophole, taking away burial eligibility for any veteran convicted of a capital crime, either in state or federal court regardless of whether they're eligible for parole. It also would deny funeral honors for veterans buried in private cemeteries with such convictions, Schrade said.

"It also covers plea bargains," he said.

Craig previously introduced a bill calling for Wagner's ashes to be removed from Arlington. The amendment he co-sponsored with Mikulski does not address that.

Schrade said the Department of Defense Authorization Bill has passed in the House, but without the amendment. The bill should be voted on in the Senate by the end of this week, he said.

"The amendment has been filed. We're going to work behind the scenes to see if we can get all parties to agree it should be adopted," Towers said.

If the bill, with the amendment included, passes the Senate then it would "get hashed out in the conference committee," Schwartz said.

It would require the Secretary of Defense and the Secretary of Veterans Affairs to "write regulations ensuring that no one is placed in a military or veterans' cemetery, or provided funeral honors, unless a good faith effort has been made to ensure that the person is eligible for receiving that honor," according to a written release from Schwartz.

In an e-mailed statement from Schwartz, Mikulski said, "My hope is that this bipartisan effort with Senator Craig will be accepted by the Senate as we consider the Defense Authorization bill. Working together, I think the proposal has a greater opportunity to be accepted, and we can begin to right this wrong."

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