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Mikulski targets burial loophole


WASHINGTON -- Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski and the chairman of the Senate Veterans' Affairs committee said yesterday that they would push for legislation to close a loophole in a federal law that allowed the killer of a Hagerstown couple to be buried at Arlington National Cemetery.

Mikulski, a Baltimore Democrat, and Republican Sen. Larry E. Craig of Idaho want to amend a 1997 law that was aimed at preventing veterans convicted of serious crimes from being interred at military cemeteries.

Craig also said he was introducing a measure that would require the remains of Russell Wayne Wagner to be removed from the Virginia cemetery, site of the grave of former President John F. Kennedy and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.

"Arlington National Cemetery, and all of our national cemeteries, are hallowed ground," Mikulski said. "They should not be tainted by the remains of a convicted murderer."

Mikulski testified before Craig's committee, introducing Vernon Davis, the son of Wagner's victims. Daniel Davis, 84, and Wilda Davis, 80, were stabbed to death on Valentine's Day 1994. Wagner had been serving consecutive life sentences at the Maryland House of Correction Annex in Jessup when he died of a heroin overdose in February.

Congress passed legislation in 1997, largely to ensure that Oklahoma City bomber Timothy J. McVeigh, a veteran of the 1991 Persian Gulf war, would not be buried at Arlington.

But while that law applies to veterans convicted of a capital crime in federal court - as was McVeigh - veterans convicted in state court who receive a life sentence with the possibility of parole remain eligible. That's what happened with Wagner, whose ashes were interred at Arlington in July.

During a brief but emotional statement, Vernon Davis told the committee how the family's sense of closure at the news of Wagner's death was shattered when they learned his remains were at Arlington.

"That's an honorable place for people to go," Davis said, as family members wept in the audience. "Not a murderer."

There is no provision in the process of applying for burial at a military cemetery for being asked whether the deceased has been convicted of a crime.

Mikulski, Craig and other senators said the law needs to be changed, and soon. But representatives of veterans' groups urged caution, pointing out that it could be difficult to decide which crimes should make a veteran ineligible. Mikulski said she would work with the groups on a compromise.

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