Congress OKs burial rule for veterans

The defense spending bill approved by Congress this week includes a provision that would prohibit convicted criminals who could have been sentenced to death or to life in prison for their crimes from being interred or inurned at national cemeteries, according to information from the U.S. Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs.

The Senate approved a defense bill Wednesday night; the House approved the spending bill Thursday afternoon. The bill is on its way to President Bush for signing, according to a release from Veterans’ Affairs Committee spokesman Jeff Schrade.

According to the release, the measure “applies to both national cemeteries run by the federal government and cemeteries for veterans run by state governments which were funded with (Veterans’ Administration) grants. It also prohibits the military from playing Taps or presenting an American flag at such funerals at both public and private cemeteries.”

The amendment to the Defense Authorization Bill was sought by committee Chairman Larry Craig, R-Idaho, in response to the inurnment at Arlington National Cemetery of the remains of a Vietnam War-era veteran convicted in the 1994 murders of an elderly Hagerstown couple. Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., co-sponsored the amendment.

In August, The Herald-Mail reported that Russell Wayne Wagner’s ashes had been inurned at Arlington (Va.) National Cemetery. The issue gained national attention.

Wagner was sentenced in October 2002 by Washington County Circuit Court Judge Frederick C. Wright III to serve consecutive life terms for the stabbing deaths of Daniel Davis, 84, and Wilda Davis, 80, in their West Wilson Boulevard home.

Wagner died Feb. 7 from a heroin overdose while serving his sentences at the Maryland House of Correction Annex in Jessup, Md.

At the request of his family members, Wagner’s remains were inurned with standard military honors at Arlington’s columbarium on July 27. After learning of Wagner’s criminal record, the U.S. Army ruled that his remains would stay there because his sentence left open the possibility for 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, said in August.

Wagner was honorably discharged from the Army in 1972.

Craig and Mikulski had introduced separate bills to close the loophole that allowed such offenders to be interred and inurned in national cemeteries. Mikulski’s office said last month that amending the provisions into the Defense Authorization Bill would be the best way to get them passed.

A bill Craig introduced in September that would require Wagner’s remains to be removed from Arlington still is pending in the Senate committee. Congress has until the end of its term next summer to act on it.

At a hearing in September, Vernon G. Davis, the Davises’ son, testified in support of stricter criteria for interment and inurnment at national cemeteries.

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