Congressman calls for capital convicts to be removed from veterans’ cemeteries

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HARRISBURG, Pa. - Family, friends and an area Congressman are pushing a bill in the U.S. House of Representatives that would remove the remains of people convicted of capital offenses from national cemeteries.

The bill was inspired by a local case involving George Siple, an Air Force and Army veteran, who was convicted in the 1969 murder of Bertha “Bertie” Smith at a storefront in Harrisburg, and was sentenced to life in prison. He died in 1999 and was interred at Indiantown Gap National Cemetery.

“Quite frankly, I'm offended. I go out there and I know Siple's there. It doesn't give me a good feeling,” Debora Swartz, a friend of Smith, said. “He may have been an honorable veteran, but he didn't die honorably. He murdered her when she came out of work.”

Rep. Lou Barletta (R-PA) is pushing for Siple's remains to be removed from the cemetery.

“When I first began to look into this issue it was clear to me that it was as frustrating as it is heartbreaking,” he said.

A federal law passed in 1997 should have prevented Siple's burial there, but the Veterans' Administration did not enforce the law until 2006, Barletta said. From then on, the VA required families to report a relative’s criminal record. A subsequent law passed in 2013 allowed the VA to remove veterans convicted of capital crimes, but that did not cover burials that took place during the 16-year gap between the laws.

“A VA national cemetery is a place of honor, and I don't think it's too much to say that murderers should not be buried next to true American heroes,” Barletta said.

Supporters are hoping to get the bill into a House committee in the coming weeks.