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Man serving life in murder of Hagerstown police officer to get new trial

Judge told jury in Merle W. Unger Jr.'s 1976 trial that his instructions were "advisory" and that they were not bound by them

January 15, 2013|By DON AINES | dona@herald-mail.com
  • Merle W. Unger Jr. is show in this 1990 file photo.
File photo

Merle W. Unger Jr., serving a life sentence for the 1975 murder of Hagerstown Police Officer Donald Kline, is scheduled for a new trial in June, Washington County Deputy State’s Attorney Joseph Michael said this week.

The trial will begin the week of June 10 and will be held in Easton in Talbot County, Michael said on Monday.

In May 2012, the Maryland Court of Appeals affirmed a 2007 judgment by Washington County Circuit Court Judge Donald E. Beachley vacating Unger’s 1976 conviction, a trial that was also held in Talbot County.

The verdict was vacated because of jury instructions given in the original trial in which a judge told the jury that his instructions were “advisory” and that they were not bound by them.

“The Circuit Court concluded that, because of the jury instructions at Unger’s trial, he had been denied due process of law guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment,” the Appeals Court ruling stated.

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The Court of Appeals later ruled in a separate case that a judge’s instructions to the jury on the law are binding, not advisory.

Michael said two days have been set aside in April for motions hearings in the case.

Unger, now in his early 60s, was charged with first-degree murder in the Dec. 13, 1975, of Kline, who was off-duty when he came upon a robbery at Kim’s Korner on South Mulberry Street. Kline chased Unger into an alley and shots were fired.

Kline died of his wounds and Unger was found wounded and hiding in the basement of a nearby residence.

Unger was also found guilty of armed robbery, use of a handgun in commission of a robbery, and use of a handgun in commission of a murder in the 1976 trial.

Unger has a long record of escapes, including from jails and prisons in Maryland, Pennsylvania and Florida.

While serving his life sentence, he escaped from a Maryland prison in 1981 and was later apprehended in Florida and convicted of a series of burglaries there.

While serving his Florida sentence, Unger escaped in November 1990 and was caught days later near Culpeper, Va.

Nearly four decades have passed since Kline was killed and some investigators and witnesses have died, retired or moved away. Michael would not comment when asked whether he planned to have any surviving witnesses testify in June.

“That is our intent,” Michael said when asked if transcripts from the 1976 trial would be introduced by the state at trial.

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