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Public Statements

Statements on Introduced Bills and Joint Resolutions

Location: Washington, DC



Mr. CRAIG. Mr. President, I have sought recognition to comment on legislation I am introducing that will fix a problem that many of us thought was corrected 8 years ago. My legislation will close a loophole in the law that now allows capital offenders to be buried in America's national cemeteries. My legislation will ensure that no one who may be given a life sentence or who may be sentenced to death for murder will be honored at their funerals by the presence of a military funeral detail. And, finally, my legislation will direct the Secretary of Veterans Affairs, the Secretary of the Army, and other military service Secretaries to each prescribe a proactive process by which officials can ascertain whether there exists a burial or funeral honors prohibition on individuals who may have been capital offenders.

In 1997, the Congress learned that the perpetrator of the Oklahoma City bombings--Timothy McVeigh--was, in fact, eligible for burial and memorialization in a VA national cemetery and, under certain circumstances, Arlington National Cemetery. Largely, but not exclusively, in response to McVeigh's eligibility, Public Law 105-116 was enacted to deny interment in Arlington National Cemetery, VA National Cemeteries, and State veterans' cemeteries funded with VA grants, to any person convicted of a Federal capital crime or a State capital crime for which a sentence of death or life imprisonment without parole is given. Later, in 2002, Public Law 107-330 was enacted to deny to capital offenders VA-provided flags, headstones and markers, and Presidential Memorial Certificates. The intent of the 1997 and 2002 laws was clear: We should not bury brutal murderers alongside America's honored dead and we should not provide memorialization benefits to those who have so dishonored themselves through their own post-service conduct.

The circumstances surrounding the placement of the cremated remains of a convicted double-murderer--Russell Wayne Wagner--at Arlington National Cemetery in late July caused me, and many of my colleagues, to wonder what impact the 1997 law actually had. The media coverage of former Chief Justice William Rehnquist's Arlington Cemetery funeral only served to confirm my bewilderment: How could an individual like Wagner who committed such heinous acts be placed in the same hallowed ground as Chief Justice Rehnquist, Justice Thurgood Marshall, President Kennedy, and hundreds upon hundreds of servicemembers to whom this country owes its eternal respect?

Russell Wayne Wagner's two life sentences carried with them the possibility of parole. The 1997 law only bars national cemetery interment to State capital offenders sentenced to death or life in prison without parole. Thus, we have our first example of the ``parole loophole.''

To further explore how wide the ``parole loophole'' is for State capital offenders, I asked the Congressional Research Service to analyze the sentencing of Dennis Rader, the infamous ``BTK serial killer,''--``BTK'' being short for Rader's method to dispose of his 10 victims: Bind, Torture, Kill. Rader was given ten consecutive life terms for which he must serve a minimum of 175 years in prison. However, because the Kansas law under which Rader was tried did not allow for a sentence of death, nor did it allow for a sentence of life without parole, CRS concluded that, as an honorably discharged veteran of the Air Force, ``it would appear that he is not statutorily precluded from interment in a national cemetery.'' If the 1997 law cannot prevent the interment of a notorious serial killer, then what good is it? I called a hearing in September to find an answer to that question.

The Committee heard from Mr. Vernon Davis, son of Wagner's victims, who described in vivid detail how Wagner repeatedly stabbed his elderly parents to death. I was so astounded that an individual who committed such a cowardly action could be buried at Arlington that I immediately introduced legislation--S. 1759--to have his remains removed.

The Committee also heard from VA and Arlington cemetery officials who described the process that is in place to deny burial in national cemeteries to capital offenders. Unfortunately, the process appears to be a passive one. The Deputy Superintendent at Arlington told me that Arlington officials do not even ask whether a person on whose behalf burial is sought is a convicted capital offender. While I understand that finding out such information needs to be handled delicately and with tact, to have no screening process at all is unacceptable.

Finally, we heard the unified testimony of 5 veterans' organizations, who reminded us that decisions to take away benefits earned by virtue of honorable military service should never be made without careful, reasoned deliberation.

Based on the testimony from the Committee's hearing, I have joined with my colleagues from Kansas--Senators Roberts and Brownback--in introducing this legislation today. Section 1 of the legislation would remove the language in law that provides capital offenders--like Wagner and the BTK Killer--with their continued burial eligibility. Furthermore, to address situations where a capital offender may have plea-bargained his or her way out of a death or life sentence, section 1 would remove the language in statute that ties the prohibition of cemetery burial to a capital crime sentence that was received and would replace it with language tying the prohibition to a capital crime sentence that may be received. This statutory language change would recognize that while the actual sentence for those who commit heinous acts may vary, the underlying action meriting those criminal sentences should be treated equally for purposes of burial prohibition.

Section 2 of the legislation would deny the provision of military honors and burial at a military cemetery of a person convicted of a Federal capital crime or a State capital crime for which a life sentence or the death penalty may be imposed. Section 3 would deny funeral honors--where at least two members of the Armed Forces are made available at veterans' funerals to fold and present the American flag, and play Taps--to those same persons, irrespective of whether burial is sought at national, state, or private cemeteries.

Finally, section 4 of the legislation would require the appropriate military service and VA to each prescribe regulations to ensure that a person is neither buried, nor provided funeral honors, before a good-faith effort is made to determine whether such person is ineligible as a capital offender.

This legislation is a necessary reform to the 1997 law. Let me be clear that while the effect of the legislation would be to take away benefits that were otherwise earned by honorable military service, the intent of it is not punitive. Rather, my intention is to preserve the dignity of America's national cemeteries.

President Lincoln delivered his Gettysburg Address at one of our Nation's first, and most revered, national cemeteries. Then he spoke of the ``honored dead'' who gave their ``last full measure of devotion.'' My legislation will ensure that we bring no dishonor to those who belong in our national cemeteries by inappropriately honoring those who, by their own actions, do not.

I ask unanimous consent that the text of the bill be printed in the RECORD.

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