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Bush Signs Ban on 'Lifers' from National Cemeteries

President Bush signed into law last week a provision that eliminates funeral honors and burial benefits for a veteran convicted of state or federal crimes carrying any life sentence.

The amendment, sponsored by Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., and Sen. Larry Craig, R-Idaho, closed a loophole in the defense authorization bill.

"This law honors our military heroes, and I am so proud to have fought for its passage," Mikulski said in a written statement. "This continues what has been a daily fight for more than 18 years to safeguard vital veterans' services and benefits."

The passage was a small victory for the family members of murder victims Daniel and Wilda Davis, of Hagerstown. The Davis' killer, Russell Wayne Wagner, was convicted and sentenced to two life terms with parole eligibility. Wagner died in prison last February and was buried in Arlington National Cemetery for his service in the Vietnam War.

A son of the victims, Vernon Davis, of Hagerstown, testified before the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee in September. Davis described how Wagner sat his parents on kitchen chairs, tied their hands behind their heads and put pillowcases over their heads. Wagner then stabbed them about 15 times and robbed them before he left.

"It's an honorable place for people to go, not a murderer," Davis told the committee.

The original bill was enacted in 1997 to prevent Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh from being buried in a national cemetery following his execution. But it only barred veterans sentenced to death or life in prison without parole from receiving military honors. Wagner would have been eligible for parole in 2017 if he were still alive.

"The law definitely needed changed, and we're right-tickled the law was changed," Davis said. "It makes us feel good that we could do that. A normal person got the law changed, and we do feel good about that."

One of the Davis' grandchildren, Julie Gehr, echoed those thoughts.

"I'm glad it'll keep anyone else from going through what we've been through," Gehr said. "My grandparents were murdered and taken away from us, and to me, this is justice."

Davis is still unhappy that Wagner's body remains in the national cemetery, and he is fighting to have it removed.

In October, Mikulski and Craig introduced a bill to require the Secretary of the Army to remove Wagner's remains from the cemetery. The bill is awaiting action in the Senate Committee on Veterans' Affairs.

Davis also said it is wrongly being referred to as the "Wagner Law," after the convict, when it should be called the "Davis Law," in honor of his slain parents.

Davis is grateful to Mikulski and empowered by the tragic situation's effect on the legislation.

"She found out where we was coming from and she changed the law," he said.

Davis said although his parents would be proud of the way he helped change the law and that he is still fighting, no legislative measure could ever bring him closure.

"I think they would be more than well-satisfied. They were normal people who didn't want no highlights, just lived their life."