EASTON — He once was dubbed “a mild mannered escape artist” by the Gettysburg Times in a 1981 article about his flight from the Patuxent Institution in Jessup. At the time, it was his sixth prison break in 10 years. He was 32.
Now 63, Merle W. Unger Jr. will go on trial Monday at the Talbot County Circuit Court for a crime for which he is currently serving a life sentence plus 40 years. Convicted of the Dec. 13, 1975, murder of Hagerstown police officer Donald Kline, Unger was granted a new trial in 2012 by the Maryland Court of Appeals based on the grounds his jury received improper instructions from the judge in the 1976 Talbot County trial.
Kline, who was off duty at the time, caught Unger by surprise during an armed robbery of a store on Mulberry Street in Hagerstown and chased him into a back alley where there was a shootout between the two.
Kline was found fatally wounded with three shots to his chest. When police tracked down Unger, they found him in a nearby house, bleeding from a gunshot wound inflicted by Kline.
From the beginning, Unger has maintained his innocence and pleaded “not guilty” to first-degree murder, armed robber and handgun use in a violent crime in the charging documents for his new trial.
In a motions hearing on May 28, defense attorney Daniel Ginsberg asked that expert testimony concerning firearms and ballistics evidence be precluded from the upcoming trial. According to court documents, Ginsberg alleged the prosecution told the defense “with the exception of ‘the murder weapon’ — a .25 caliber pistol — ‘the evidence is gone,’“ including “Kline’s .38 caliber revolver, a .38 caliber bullet, three empty .38 caliber cartridge cases, three .25 caliber bullets and five .25 caliber shell casings.”
In the court documents, Ginsburg stated that while the prosecution called as an expert witness Evan Hodge, a special agent with the Federal Bureau of Investigation at the time of the original trial, Hodge could not provide any conclusive testimony without the state’s evidence.
Judge Broughton Earnest, who will preside over Unger’s June 10 trial, denied the request.
State’s Attorney Joseph Michael then made Unger a plea offer: The state jointly requested with Unger and his counsel to proceed with the trial on an agreed statement of facts. Under a “not guilty” plea, Unger waived his right to a trial by jury and his right to speak in his own defense. Broughton will rule in Unger’s case solely based on a stipulated record of testimony — a transcript of Unger’s first trial and arguments from the prosecution and the defense.
“I trust you understand, even though this is a new trial, and you are presumed innocent, you are giving up the right to present new evidence,” Earnest told Unger.
Unger agreed to all the conditions of the plea. Earnest ruled Unger made a “knowing, informed, intelligent decision” and asked that the original trial transcripts be provided for his use to study before the June 10 trial.
According to Lt. John Bollinger of the Talbot County Sheriff’s Office, due to Unger’s lifelong history as a flight risk, additional deputies will be on hand at the circuit court for the duration of the trial. Unger also will be wearing a “stun belt” around his waist that can be activated should he attempt to escape.