- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 11, 2006

DALLAS — Veterans Administration officials’ denial of a Dallas family’s request to have a confessed killer buried in a national cemetery in Texas has elicited angry reactions.

Radio talk shows, Internet sites and letters to local newspapers have revealed opposition to what one called “complete insensitivity” and another termed “a lack of fairness: look at how many felons already are in U.S. cemeteries.”

The story started on April 25, when Dallas police arrested James Roberson, 83, in the shooting death of his wife.

Mr. Roberson, police said, suffered from terminal cancer and was given a short time to live. His wife, Mary, also 83, suffered two serious strokes and could do little for herself.

They made a pact, Mr. Roberson told police: They would go together. He would kill her, then turn the gun on himself.

The first part worked, but Mr. Roberson told police that the gun failed to fire when he tried to shoot himself.

“Who will take care of her after I die?” he told police.

Mr. Roberson was charged with murder and allowed to leave jail on $2,500 bail. It was doubtful that a grand jury would return an indictment under the circumstances.

The case never got that far. Three weeks after leaving jail, Mr. Roberson died of natural causes.

Mr. Roberson was a World War II veteran, and his family wanted him interred in the Dallas-Fort Worth National Cemetery. VA officials denied that request because of a law that prohibits a veteran’s burial in a national cemetery if the veteran had committed a crime worthy of life imprisonment.

The law was enacted in 1997 to prevent the body of Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh, an Iraq war veteran, from being buried in a national cemetery. The law was strengthened after press accounts indicated that several felons had been buried in Arlington National Cemetery, as well in many of the 122 other national cemeteries.

The VA issued its final refusal Wednesday, explaining that although officials were sympathetic to Mr. Roberson’s family, the federal statute was clear.

“While the VA understands that this is not the decision Mr. Roberson’s family had hoped for,” read the statement sent to the family, “and while the VA is sympathetic to the grief the family is suffering, the law is clear regarding eligibility for burial in this situation.”

William F. Tuerk, the VA’s undersecretary for memorial affairs, ruled that although Mr. Roberson had never been indicted, the statute does not require a conviction if the veteran dies before trial.

Mr. Roberson’s daughter Sally said she was not surprised but “terribly disappointed.”

“My father was an incredible man,” she said. “Can you imagine loving someone so much that you would try to kill yourself to be with her?”

“There’s a big difference between being accused and convicted,” said John Moehlenkamp, past commander of VFW Post 4477. “The man’s a veteran. He should be buried in a national cemetery.”

VA spokesman David Schettler said the determination was made on the narrow grounds of whether Mr. Roberson indeed killed his wife. His confession made the question moot.

“There are no waivers of a federal statute,” he said.

Late Friday, a grand jury declined to indict Mr. Roberson in his wife’s death, but VA officials were firm. “Our decision stands while we review this new development,” VA spokesman Ozzie Garza said.

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