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Court urged to delay Unger hearing because of escape record

June 22, 2006|by PEPPER BALLARD

HAGERSTOWN

Worried that convicted killer Merle W. Unger Jr. will try to make another break from prison custody, Washington County prosecutors asked through a court motion Wednesday that no hearing to review his sentence be held until construction on the Washington County Courthouse is complete.

Unger, 56, filed an amended petition in May to seek relief from the life plus 40-year sentence he was handed for his conviction on first-degree felony murder and other charges for the Dec. 13, 1975, murder of Hagerstown Police Department Officer Donald Kline.

Kline was killed as the result of a gunbattle with Unger, whom he had just intercepted fleeing from a robbery at Kim's Korner, a former grocery store at the corner of Baltimore and Frederick streets, about 9:10 p.m.

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Kline, who was off duty, had chased Unger when a gunbattle between the two men ensued in a nearby alley. Kline died shortly after the gunbattle, and Unger was wounded. Unger, who at the time was an escapee from a Pennsylvania correctional institution, then hid - wounded - in the basement of a house about a block and a half away for a couple of hours, according to published reports.

Since April, Unger has been held at the Maryland Correctional Adjustment Center, commonly called Supermax, in Baltimore after his transfer there from a Florida prison.

Unger escaped from a Florida prison in 1990 using wire cutters, but it was not clear from court records if it was the same prison from which he was transferred.

According to the motion filed Wednesday by State's Attorney Charles P. Strong Jr., Unger "has an extraordinary record for escape and the perpetration of violent crimes," including at least six escape charges prior to his December 1976 sentencing on Kline's murder and "at least" two afterward.

Strong included a rap sheet 17 criminal entries long, including four successful "prison breach" and two "escape" entries, predominantly briefing escapes from Pennsylvania institutions, but also including escapes from Washington County Jail, a Florida prison and a Maryland prison. One note reads that a search of Unger's Supermax cell in 1991 revealed "saw blades hidden in his cell."

Since the Washington County Courthouse currently is undergoing construction and remodeling, Strong asked "no hearing be scheduled until construction is complete" on the courthouse.

Gary Pozzouli, project manager for the renovations, said Wednesday that he expects exterior renovations, including the addition of a court-requested security elevator, to be complete in spring 2007.

Calling Unger "an extreme security risk," Strong requested that when Unger has his hearing, admittance of spectators be limited to reduce the chances Unger "act in concert with accomplices"; that he be transported directly to and from Supermax and not be held overnight at the Washington County Detention Center; and that he "remain restrained in handcuffs, leg irons and waist restraints during transportation to and from court, and during the duration of any hearing."

Unger first filed for post-conviction relief on Aug. 9, 1995, from the Florida prison in which he was incarcerated, but it was withdrawn without prejudice in January 1996, then filed again through Talbot County, Md. - where he was convicted and sentenced - in December 1996, according to his petition. It was transferred to Washington County in 1997, but a hearing set for October 1998 was continued and since has not been rescheduled, according to court documents.

Through his attorney, Fred Warren Bennett, Unger alleges in his petition that his trial attorney erred on a number of points, including his alleged failure to request a reasonable doubt instruction to jurors and his failure to keep witnesses out of the courtroom. He alleges his trial judge "improperly instructed the jury that his instructions were advisory only and not binding on them," and that his appellate attorney failed to raise issues with his amended charges and with chain of custody.

Strong, in his response to that petition, said Unger waived the issues raised about jury instructions and the witnesses at the time of trial. He wrote that Unger's appellate lawyer's actions were not errors, and "there is no showing that (Unger's) outcome on appeal would have been any different than the affirmation of his conviction."

In Unger's petition, Bennett wrote that the Maryland Court of Special Appeals affirmed Unger's convictions, but ruled that although his statements to police were properly admitted, the trial judge erred when he sentenced Unger "on the underlying felony count and use of a handgun count." A petition seeking review of that appeal was denied in 1977, Bennett wrote.

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