‘No vacancy’ for felons

Congress is expected this week to decide whether convicted murderers and spies can be buried at Arlington National Cemetery and more than 120 other burial grounds across the country.

A measure barring military veterans convicted of a state or federal capital crime from being interred in a national or state veterans’ cemetery is now before a joint House-Senate panel. The committee is working to craft a final version of the annual defense authorization bill.

If the conferees agree, veterans found guilty of capital offenses _which carry the death penalty or life in prison as a possible punishment _ also would not be allowed such honors as the playing of taps or a 21-gun salute at funerals at private cemeteries.

Last week, the Senate unanimously endorsed the bans, which were shepherded through by Sens. Larry Craig, R-Idaho, and Barbara Mikulski, D-Md. _ among the Senate’s most conservative and liberal senators, respectively. Craig said he expects House panel members will follow suit.

“We anticipate it will be agreed to,” said Jeff Schrade, a spokesman for Craig.

The issue of whether those convicted of heinous crimes should be allowed to be laid to rest at national cemeteries arose last summer, when family members of a murdered elderly couple in Maryland objected to the placement of the convicted man’s cremated remains in an Arlington cemetery columbarium.

The murderer, Russell W. Wagner, 52, had been honorably discharged after an Army tour. Though sentenced to two consecutive life sentences, Wagner was technically eligible for parole. He died in February of an apparent heroin overdose in a Maryland state prison.

As a result of his parole eligibility, he was exempt from a 1997 law passed to prevent the remains of Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh from being buried in a national cemetery. Congress wrote that law narrowly, barring just those who were convicted of murder and sentenced to death or to prison with no possibility of parole.

The new legislation would close that loophole.

Under federal law, capital crimes include murder, espionage, treason, kidnappings related to bank heists, and mailing explosives or other deadly substances with the intent to kill. Capital offenses can vary under states’ criminal codes.

(Contact Lisa Hoffman at HoffmanL(at)shns.com)