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Let Unger wait until 2007

June 23, 2006

Longtime residents of Washington County will remember the name Merle Unger Jr., but not fondly. Unger killed Hagerstown Police Officer Donald Kline in December 1975 during a gun battle following the robbery of a Baltimore Street corner grocery store.

Now 56, Unger is seeking a modification of his life-plus-40 year sentence in the 30-year-old case.

He will get his day in court, but we agree with prosecutors who say Unger should not be returned here for a hearing until renovations to the Washington County Courthouse are completed in the spring of 2007.

Why not? Because Unger is an escape artist. After his arrest in connection with Officer Kline's death, Unger and another inmate escaped from the old Washington County Detention Center through an air vent.

In the motion presented this week by State's Attorney Charles Strong Jr., the prosecutor noted that Unger's rap sheet includes four successful "prison breaches" and two "escape" entries.

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Strong also said that a 1991 search of Unger's cell at the Maryland Correctional Adjustment Center, also known as Supermax, revealed a hidden cache of saw blades.

Supermax is supposed to be the state's most secure institution, but somehow Unger apparently defeated its protections. If he has shown any remorse for what happened in 1975, we've seen no evidence of it.

As one officer familiar with the case said some years ago, inmates with Unger's mindset never stop thinking about the vulnerabilities of the institution where they are housed. It would be foolish, we believe, to hold a hearing for such a person during the confusion of courthouse construction.

There is no pressing reason to hear Unger's arguments in 2006. When 2007 rolls around, he should get his hearing when a renovated courthouse is ready.

Will this be a hardship for Unger? Not nearly as much as the last 30 years have been for Officer Kline's family. Let Unger wait a little longer.

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