Killer at center of prisoner release case convicted again

Unger faces sentencing in October in killing of officer in 1975

  • Merle W. Unger Jr., who was convicted of killing an off-duty Hagerstown police officer, is led from the Talbot County Circuit Court after being sentenced to life plus 40 years in prison.
Merle W. Unger Jr., who was convicted of killing an off-duty… (Baltimore Sun )
July 11, 2013|By Yvonne Wenger and Ian Duncan, The Baltimore Sun

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.

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