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Family gets victory with cemetery law

January 10, 2006|by DANIEL J. SERNOVITZ

HAGERSTOWN

daniels@herald-mail.com

The family of slain Hagerstown residents Daniel and Wilda Davis was handed a partial victory Friday when President Bush signed into law an amendment prohibiting all veterans convicted of capital offenses from being interred or inurned at national military cemeteries.

For Vernon Davis, however, the fight will continue until the remains of his parents' killer, Russell Wayne Wagner, are removed from a columbarium at Arlington National Cemetery.

"We're real satisfied as far as that bill's concerned, but we were after this to get Wagner out of Arlington National Cemetery," Davis said. "We'll be completely disappointed (if the remains are not removed), that's the bottom line."

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Bush signed the 2006 Defense Authorization Bill on Friday, and with it an amendment that bars veterans convicted of capital offenses from being interred or inurned at national military cemeteries like Arlington.

Wagner was serving two consecutive life sentences for the 1994 stabbing deaths of Daniel and Wilda Davis in their West Wilson Boulevard home when he died in February 2005 of a heroin overdose at the Maryland House of Correction Annex in Jessup, Md.

At the request of his sister, Karen Anderson, Wagner's remains were inurned with standard military honors at Arlington's columbarium in July 2005, cemetery spokeswoman Lori Calvillo told The Herald-Mail. Newspaper coverage of Wagner's inurnment sparked a national debate, which prompted U.S. Sen. Larry Craig, R-Idaho, to co-sponsor legislation with U.S. Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., modifying the regulations concerning burial and inurnment at Arlington.

Before the law changed, veterans convicted of capital offenses could be denied burial rights at national and state military cemeteries only if they were not eligible for parole. Wagner, who was honorably discharged from the U.S. Army in 1972, would have been considered eligible for parole starting in 2024.

The defense bill amendment creates a wider prohibition against all veterans convicted of state or federal capital offenses, regardless of whether they will be eligible for parole, and prohibits the military from playing taps or presenting an American flag at both public and private funerals for veterans convicted of such offenses.

"Thanks to the bipartisan efforts by Senators Craig, John Warner and Carl Levin, we have taken this important step to preserve our national cemeteries as places of honor for our veterans," Mikulski said in a news release. "Today, we have proven that together, America can do better."

Virginia Davis, one of the Davises' daughters, said she believes through the legislation some good came from the horrific circumstances surrounding her parents' murder. Like her brother, Vernon, she said she is ultimately hoping Wagner will be removed from Arlington.

"This way we do feel like we've accomplished something," she said.

Calvillo said the defense bill amendment does not affect Wagner, who remains at Arlington. Sen. Craig introduced a second bill in September specifically aimed at removing Wagner's remains from Arlington. The bill was referred to the Committee on Veterans' Affairs, which Craig chairs, but committee spokesman Jeff Schrade said Craig has not yet called for a hearing on the bill.

Vivian Davis, the wife of Vernon Davis, said she takes some comfort in knowing other veterans convicted of capital offenses will not be eligible for burial at Arlington.

"I'm pleased as punch, really," she said. "That's what this is all about, for the future soldiers," she said.

At the same time, she said, she was offended Wagner was inurned at Arlington without notification to the Davis family.

"I just hope and pray that we can get (Wagner) out," she said. "That was almost like a slap in the face to us."

Vivian Monger, another daughter of Daniel and Wilda Davis, declined to comment.

Anderson could not be reached for comment, but her husband, Bill, said he did not believe she would want to comment on the bill.

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