By Richard Simon
10:53 PM PST, December 11, 2013
WASHINGTON — Congress sent President Obama legislation on Wednesday that its chief sponsor said he wished weren't necessary.
The Alicia Dawn Koehl Respect for National Cemeteries Act authorizes the Department of Veterans Affairs to disinter from national cemeteries any veterans who have committed capital crimes.
The measure was approved by the House on Wednesday after earlier passing the Senate.
It grew out of what its chief sponsor, Sen. Dan Coats (R-Ind.), said was a "very disturbing mistake" by Veterans Affairs: burying the killer of a mother of two at a national cemetery, and with military honors.
Alicia Dawn Koehl was killed at an Indianapolis apartment complex last year by Michael L. Anderson, who then killed himself.
Anderson, a veteran, was buried at Ft. Custer National Cemetery in Michigan.
A 1997 law, passed after Army veteran Timothy J. McVeigh was sentenced to die for the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing that killed 168 people, bars veterans sentenced to death or life imprisonment for capital crimes from burial in a national cemetery. Coats, who was contacted by the Koehl family, said the VA told him it could not exhume Anderson's remains without congressional action.
"In other words, the VA was not permitted under current law to bury Anderson at the national cemetery, but the department's legal interpretation of the law says it does not have the legal authority to fix that mistake and exhume the remains of this ineligible veteran," Coats told his colleagues last month.
"I wish this legislation were not necessary," he said. "Legislation had to be offered to right this wrong."
This bill gives the VA the authority to "fix any similar burial mistakes" in the future, according to Coats'
office. If signed by the president, the VA would turn over Anderson's remains to his family, or if the family is unavailable, would "arrange for an appropriate disposition," probably in a public cemetery.
In 2006, President George W. Bush signed legislation that required the remains of Russell Wayne Wagner, convicted in the killing of a Maryland couple, to be removed from Arlington National Cemetery. The law was amended to eliminate a loophole that exempted convicted killers eligible for parole.
Earlier this year, Obama signed legislation that prohibits veterans convicted of sexually abusing children and sentenced to life imprisonment from burial at a veterans cemetery. That measure also grew out of a constituent contacting her congressman, in this case a victim of sexual abuse who contacted Rep. Vicky Hartzler (R-Mo.), who wrote the legislation.
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