Become a digitalPLUS subscriber. 99¢ for 4 weeks.
NewsMarylandBaltimore Crime Beat

Killer at center of prisoner release case convicted again

HomicideTheftRadio IndustryThe Herald-MailLaws and Legislation

On the night in 1975 that Merle W. Unger Jr. killed Hagerstown police officer Donald Kline, a black cat named Midnight gave away his hiding spot in a local basement.

It was one of many attempts Unger would make to elude police and life in prison.

On other occasions, according to court documents, he commandeered a dump truck to break out of prison and hacked through a fence with wire cutters before leading police on a high-speed chase. An account recorded by his hometown historical society claims he even broke out of jail to play bingo — and then broke back in.

Unger's most productive attempt at freedom came through an appeal in Maryland's courts. It just didn't bring about his own freedom.

Unger, now 64, filed the appeal that has led to the release of 13 convicted murderers in Baltimore — and could affect 200 more cases statewide.

Unger, too, won the right to possible release, based on the court's ruling that jury instructions in his case, like those in many others, led to unfair trials.

But while others have gone free, Unger was retried and convicted again in June. He is being held at the North Branch Correctional Institution, a maximum-security prison in Cumberland, while awaiting sentencing in October.

Washington County Deputy State's Attorney Joseph S. Michael, who led the prosecution effort in Unger's case, said the new conviction is critical because it shows that the high court's ruling is not an automatic path to freedom.

"We faced the challenges that 37 years bring to any murder trial: deceased and unavailable witnesses; destroyed or missing physical evidence; and the frailty of human memory and perception," Michael said in a statement. "It is our hope that we have given heart to other prosecutors who will have to travel the hard road of retrying tragic homicides long since closed."

About half the prisoners eligible for a new trial are in Baltimore, where prosecutors are preparing to release seven more this month. The inmates agreed to plead guilty to new charges in their cases in exchange for lesser sentences and supervised probation.

Prosecutors in Baltimore and elsewhere say they plan to fight the release of some inmates affected by the Court of Appeals decision.

In Washington County, prosecutors maintained an active file on Unger because of his prison escapes and multiple appeals. The infamous case is detailed in hundreds of pages of court documents and old newspaper clippings, including articles from The Baltimore Sun and The Herald Mail in Hagerstown.

Unger faced a string of arson, burglary and armed robbery charges in central Pennsylvania going back to 1967, when he was 17 years old. He had become something of a folk hero around his hometown of Shade Gap, Pa., near Chambersburg. One radio station printed T-shirts with "Merle Unger Fan Club" around an image of a bird with wings outspread. Area residents recalled "Run, Merle, Run" jerseys in circulation.

Ann Hull, director of the Franklin County Historical Society, works out of the former Chambersburg jail from which Unger once escaped.

Hull said he was so brazen that he was said to have sneaked out through a side door, hopped the wall and headed down the block to play bingo at a Catholic church. "Then he'd come back in after bingo was over," she said.

The escapade went undetected, according to the society's archives, until he ran into a deputy sheriff who happened to be playing the game.

"He was just a character when he was here," Hull said. "After he killed that policeman he became a felon and the attitude around here changed toward him."

The killing took place on Dec. 13, 1975, after Unger had escaped a Pennsylvania prison. Court documents show that he wore a ski mask and a dark jacket when he entered Kim's Korner store about 9 p.m. Three women were inside, along with Kline, who was off-duty. Unger pointed a gun at the store owner and demanded that he empty the cash register and his pockets.

Kline waited until Unger was leaving, then shouted, "Halt, police officer!" court records show.

Kline followed Unger into the street and the two men fought. Witnesses said they heard gunshots, and Kline staggered out of the alley and dropped his gun. Unger ran away.

According to The Herald-Mail, Unger holed up in the basement of a nearby home. The residents said their cat "was acting funny for quite a while, running back and forth in the room and jumping up in the kitchen window to look out."

They heard noises, too, and alerted police, who found blood outside the cellar and Unger inside. He was unconscious from a gunshot wound, court documents say, and had nearly $2,000 in cash, checks and money orders.

Before his trial, he and another prisoner escaped by cutting a hole in their cell. Unger took off for Orlando, Fla., where he was arrested for stealing two loaded pistols from the Trailways Lounge and extradited.

Unger was found guilty in November 1976 of first-degree murder.

In 1981, Unger escaped again. He and two other inmates used a makeshift knife to overpower a maintenance worker at the Patuxent Institution. The Sun reported that they stole the keys to a dump truck, apparently were let out by a guard who mistook them for staff, and drove away.

Unger fled to Clearwater, Fla., where he was picked up again for assault and armed burglary and sentenced to 30 years. He was imprisoned in Florida in 1990 when he escaped again. He was caught eight days later in Strasburg, Va.

Unger eventually returned to a Maryland prison to pursue a series of appeals. He left behind a wife, Vicki, whom he had married in 1988 after she paid $5 for his address through a prisoners correspondence club, his attorney told The Sun in 1990. They had two children together.

Neither Vicki Unger nor their children could be reached for comment.

In 2007, a Washington County judge heard his appeal. A circuit judge granted a new trial the next year, but prosecutors challenged that decision. It took another five years for the state's top court to issue its ruling.

Prisoners released in other cases affected by the ruling had less chaotic records than Unger's, a factor that Baltimore prosecutors say they weigh heavily when deciding who they might let go.

For example, Jerome Washington, convicted of first-degree murder in 1976 and incarcerated since 1977, had not broken prison rules since 1984, according to documents prepared ahead of his release. Washington was on work release in 1993 when a change in state policy called inmates with life sentences back to prison.

When Unger is sentenced again in October, dozens of retired and active Hagerstown officers are expected to line the courtroom in a show of support for Kline. The state's attorney's office will once again seek a life sentence.

"This case has been incredibly important to a lot of people in Hagerstown," said Michael, the prosecutor. "I never want to lose sight of the tragic loss of Officer Kline's life in the line of duty — and the many, many victims and survivors of tragedy that this could affect."

Baltimore Sun research librarian Paul M. McCardell contributed to this article.

ywenger@baltsun.com

twitter.com/yvonnewenger

iduncan@baltsun.com

twitter.com/iduncan

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
Related Content
HomicideTheftRadio IndustryThe Herald-MailLaws and Legislation
Comments
Loading