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Convicted cop killer should get a new trial, judge rules

March 21, 2007|by DAN DEARTH

HAGERSTOWN - A Washington County Circuit Court judge ruled Friday that a man convicted of killing a Hagerstown police officer more than 30 years ago is entitled to a new trial.

Washington County Deputy State's Attorney Joseph S. Michael said his office and the Maryland Attorney General's Office will appeal the ruling in the Special Court of Appeals to retry Merle W. Unger Jr.

Unger, 57, is serving a sentence of life plus 40 years for murdering Officer Donald Kline during a gun battle on Dec. 13, 1975.

Kline was off duty and tried to arrest Unger after he robbed a Hagerstown business.

Unger will remain in prison while the appeal is processed.

"We are confident that Mr. Unger will serve the rest of his life in jail for killing Donald Kline. ... We believe Mr. Unger got a fair trial," Michael said during a Tuesday press conference where he was flanked by a handful of Hagerstown police officers.

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Michael said the ruling of a higher court in a case similar to Unger's prompted Washington County Circuit Judge Donald E. Beachley to order another trial.

The Washington County State's Attorney's Office is disappointed by the ruling, but understands that Beachley was bound by law to make his decision, Michael said.

Unger has escaped from custody at least eight times, Michael said. Authorities will take special precautions to ensure that doesn't happen again should another trial occur, he said.

If the case is tried again, Michael said Unger's confession to Kline's murder probably would be reintroduced.

"We expect all of that evidence to bear against him again. ... It is still possible there won't be another trial," Michael said.

The Maryland Attorney's General Office will argue the appeal, he said. The Washington County State's Attorney's Office would retry the case.

Hagerstown Police Chief Arthur Smith said he regretted that Kline's family will have to "relive this again."

Two or three Hagerstown police officers who served when Kline was murdered remain on duty today, Smith said.

One of those officers, Detective George Brant, declined to comment.

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