A Senate committee plans to review rules that govern who can — and cannot — be laid to rest in national cemeteries after the ashes of a convicted murderer were placed in Arlington National Cemetery.
The Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee will take up the issue in September when Congress returns from its recess, its chairman, Sen. Larry Craig, R-Idaho, said Wednesday.
Russell Wayne Wagner, 52, a Vietnam War veteran, died Feb. 7 of a heroin overdose in prison. In 2002, he was convicted of the Valentine’s Day 1994 murders of Daniel Davis, 84, and Wilda Davis, 80, and was sentenced to two consecutive life terms. The victims were found bound and stabbed in their home in Hagerstown, Md.
Wagner’s cremated remains were placed at the cemetery July 27. Wagner had been in the Army from 1969 to 1972 and was honorably discharged, service that qualified him for interment at Arlington.
Congress passed a law in 1997 prohibiting people convicted of federal or state capital crimes and sentenced to death or life imprisonment without parole from being interred at Arlington and other military cemeteries. Wagner would have become eligible in 2017 for a review that could have led to parole, according to the Maryland Division of Corrections.
The law was aimed in part at preventing convicted Army veteran Timothy McVeigh, who carried out the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, from being buried in Arlington.
“The Russell Wagner case troubles me greatly,” Craig said. “I am sensitive to the issue of dishonoring the sacrifices made by those buried at Arlington by including among them those who were involved in heinous acts….
“At the same time I recognize that taking away veterans’ benefits on account of post-military service behavior is probably more complicated than it seems,” Craig said.
Veterans groups worry that changing the law again on who can and cannot be buried in national cemeteries will end up excluding too many veterans.
“They already drew the line,” said Ramona Joyce, a spokeswoman for the American Legion, which supported the 1997 law. “They can’t cherry pick when all these veterans meet the service requirement. The fact of the matter is he served the country honorably and now you’re hurting his veteran status.”
Joyce said that while she wasn’t making excuses for Wagner and that what he did was tragic, “there must be a reason he was not sentenced to life without parole.”
Jon Towers, a spokesman for Craig’s committee, said its re-evaluation will look at “whether the present policy is good enough.”
Vernon G. Davis, the son of Wagner’s murder victims, doesn’t think it is.
“These rules were made for one person. They looked down the tube and they didn’t see anything else but that,” said Davis, 66, himself an Army veteran. “They didn’t do it right, that’s for sure. They’re going to have to change something. When somebody serves time in the service that’s one thing, but when they turn around and come and do something like this, that’s completely wrong.”
On the Net:
Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee: https://veterans.senate.gov/
Arlington National Cemetery: https://www.arlingtoncemetery.org/