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Convicted cop killer to get sentence review

July 08, 2006|by PEPPER BALLARD

HAGERSTOWN

Merle W. Unger Jr., who was convicted 30 years ago of killing a police officer, on Friday was granted a hearing in December to have his sentence reviewed amid tight security, according to court documents.

A prosecution motion has called Unger, 56, an escape risk.

Unger is serving life plus 40 years for felony murder and other charges. He was convicted of murdering Hagerstown Police Department Officer Donald Kline on Dec. 13, 1975.

In a June 21 motion responding to Unger's petition, Washington County State's Attorney Charles P. Strong Jr. said Unger "has an extraordinary record for escape and the perpetration of violent crimes," including at least six escape charges from prison or jail prior to his December 1976 sentencing on Kline's murder and "at least" two afterward.

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Strong asked for extra security measures at Unger's hearing. He also asked that the sentence not be reviewed until construction and renovation work at Washington County Courthouse is complete, which is projected for next spring.

In an order filed Friday, Circuit Judge Frederick C. Wright III said Unger may have a postconviction hearing on Dec. 8. Unger must be taken directly to and from prison for the hearing, Wright ordered, and must be "at all times" in handcuffs, leg irons and waist restraints during the hearing and during his trip to and from court.

Wright also ordered that admittance to the courtroom for the hearing be limited.

Since April, Unger has been held at the Maryland Correctional Adjustment Center, commonly called Supermax, in Baltimore.

In a June 29 response to Strong's motion, Unger's attorney, Fred Warren Bennett, requested that Unger's family be present for the hearing. He said he would not have opposed the prosecution's security requests had "he been given the courtesy of a telephone call from opposing counsel."

Unger "has been branded as a repeat risk of escape and a person who perpetrates violent crimes," according to Bennett's motion.

Bennett wrote that Unger's escape record would not have been brought up at his postconviction hearing, which will be limited to claims of ineffective counsel surrounding his 1976 conviction.

Bennett asked that Wright hold Strong in contempt of court and be fined $1,000, a request Wright did not address Friday in his order.

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