On Halloween night of 2001, James Allen Selby broke into the home of a recent college graduate named Jenny, hid in a closet until she returned, then dragged her into the shower and raped her. He was convicted of this and at least 10 other rapes and sexual assaults, including one of a nine-year-old girl. But after he committed suicide in prison, he was buried with full military honors at Fort Sill National Cemetery in Oklahoma. Now victims, and some military advocates, want a ban on sex offenders in military cemeteries so criminals like Selby can never be honored like that again.
At a House hearing Wednesday, Rep. Vicky Hartzler (R-MO) told the story of a constituent who was sexually abused as a child by her father, a veteran who was later buried in a military cemetery. Said Hartzler, "She asked that I help ensure no other child has to endure this injustice." Hartzler has introduced the Hallowed Grounds Act, which would bar Tier III sex offenders — those who have committed crimes against children — from being buried in veterans' or national cemeteries. She argued, "These offenders have surrendered their right to be honored by victimizing and oppressing others."
The bill has the support of a variety of military and veterans' groups. Raymond Kelley, legislative director of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, said in the hearing that the Hallowed Grounds Act would be an appropriate extension of existing laws that bar those convicted of capital crimes (those punishable by death, such as murder) from military burial. Thomas Murphy of the Veterans Benefits Administration also voiced support for the substance of the bill, though he had some logistical concerns about his implementation.
The Army is actually against the bill, but only because it doesn't go far enough. Kathryn Condon, Executive Director of Army National Cemeteries Program, said at the hearing that the Army couldn't support the bill as drafted because it failed to ban "the interment or memorialization of a person found by an appropriate federal authority to have committed a tier III sex offense, but not yet convicted."
But Richard Wright, a professor of criminal justice and author of the book Sex Offender Laws: Failed Policies, New Directions, says the bill is wrongheaded. He says it's part of a trend in the last 20 to 25 years of "post-conviction laws" targeted specifically at Tier III offenders, but says these laws don't actually accomplish much. Our criminal justice system, he says, now operates under the belief that "in order for the victim to get justice, something extra has to be done to the offender." But in fact, offering extra help to the victim — counseling, for instance — is more beneficial to victims' healing processes than additional punishments for the criminal.
Wright notes that the burial of a veteran who's also a sex offender to balance two things: "A person who risked their life for the protection of the country and someone who committed a horrible crime." He advocates a compromise solution, perhaps burying sex offenders with some military honors but in a different location from other veterans.
Whether ideas like his will influence the debate on the Hallowed Grounds Act is doubtful. With the exception of Condon, no one spoke against the bill in its hearing, and sex offender laws are notoriously difficult to oppose. An earlier version of the law, named Jenny's Law for James Allen Selby's victim was included in the defense bill for 2011; it was only stripped when a lame duck Congress needed to pass that bill quickly. Barring such procedural concerns, the Hallowed Grounds Act seems poised to become law.