Capital crimes have no place in VA cemeteries
In 1997, with the nation still reeling following the Oklahoma City bombing, many were rightly concerned that convicted terrorist Timothy McVeigh — a Gulf War veteran — would be buried with honors in a military cemetery. To address those fears, Congress passed a law prohibiting those convicted of capital crimes from being buried in Department of Veterans Affairs national cemeteries or Arlington National Cemetery. Unfortunately, that law has not always been followed, resulting in the hallowed ground of national military cemeteries being tainted by the burial of murderers. Another case has arisen in Pennsylvania, which prompted me to introduce legislation to ensure that current law is being observed and enforced.
On Oct. 15, 1969, Bertha Smith, known to everyone as “Bertie,” was shot and killed at an outdoor shopping center in Harrisburg, Pa. An old boyfriend, George Emery Siple, who had violated protective orders, was convicted of the murder and sentenced to life in prison without parole. After 30 years of imprisonment, Siple — a veteran — died in custody in 1999 and was buried in Indiantown Gap National Cemetery in Pennsylvania with full military honors, despite the existing law that should have prevented his interment. Siple remains there to this day.
Jackie Katz, Bertie’s daughter, has called it “hell” and a “horror” to live with the fact that Siple was memorialized and buried with full military honors. For Bertie Smith’s family, this is a traumatic, ongoing reminder of a murder from more than four decades ago. After consultation with Jackie Katz and friends of the family, I introduced the Bertie’s Respect for National Cemeteries Act to rectify the situation.
Upon looking into this issue, it became clear that it was as frustrating as it was heartbreaking. It is true that in 1997 Congress passed the law that said veterans found guilty of capital crimes could not be buried in our national veterans cemeteries. McVeigh did not receive his veteran’s burial. But a major problem we discovered was that the law was not actively enforced for others until 2006. In practice, the VA relied on an “honor system,” which required family members to willingly report their relative’s criminal record. This was a law that was not working.
With that history as a backdrop, in 2013 Congress once again sought to protect our VA national cemeteries by passing a law to explicitly allow the VA to remove veterans from cemeteries if they had been convicted of a federal or state capital crime. However, this law does not extend to veterans buried between 1997 and 2013, a time period that includes George Siple. Something more needed to be done. The Bertie’s Respect for National Cemeteries Act addresses Siple and similar cases. The legislation:
1) Requires Veterans Affairs national cemeteries and Arlington Cemetery to take every reasonable action to ensure that a veteran is eligible to be buried, including searching public criminal records.
2) Clarifies Congress’ original intent by providing the VA the explicit authority to remove veterans convicted of capital crimes who were buried after 1997.
3) Specifically provides for the removal of Siple from Indiantown Gap.
The provision removing Siple from Indiantown Gap certainly has precedent. In 2007, Russell Wayne Wagner, a convicted murderer, was disinterred from Arlington National Cemetery. Similarly, two murderers were removed from VA cemeteries in Oregon and Michigan, respectively, in 2013 — one of them without specific legislative authority. Preservation of the integrity of military cemeteries is a path we have traveled before. It should also be noted that the Veterans of Foreign Wars supports this legislation.
There have been some misconceptions about the legislation, most notably the category of crimes we are discussing. Capital crimes encompass the most detestable offenses the law contemplates, including premeditated murder, treason and espionage. Simple felonies do not qualify. Additionally, nothing in the measure would withdraw previous military honors, such as Purple Hearts or medals for valor, otherwise earned by the deceased veterans.
The discussion of military veterans who have been convicted of murder often raises the issue of mental health treatment and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). There is no question that PTSD is a real condition affecting many servicemembers, and I have always stood for funding the evaluation and treatment of those who may be afflicted. That said, those who have been convicted of capital murder by our judicial system have been declared guilty of the worst offense possible, and any mitigating factors would have been considered at trial and sentencing.
Our brave men and women in uniform have sacrificed so that all Americans may remain free, and they should be afforded every right, privilege and honor they have earned. The cemeteries we reserve for them should not be sullied by those who have been convicted of horrific violent crimes. And the memories of victims like Bertie Smith should not be disregarded.
Rep. Lou Barletta, a Republican, represents Pennsylvania’s 11th District in the U.S. House of Representatives.
Find the op-ed here.