Rattling the Bars: The Strange Case of Merle Unger
TRNN Executive Producer Eddie Conway examines the landmark case of Unger v. State of Maryland, which was responsible for the release of over 200 prisoners in 2014. However, Merle Unger, who won the case, remains locked up after 42 years of incarceration
JENNY PIPER: Our brother, Merle Unger, was convicted of felony murder in Washington County, Maryland in 1976 and was given life and 15 years. During this incident, an off-duty police officer was shot and killed. In 2012, Merle has his case overturned, which opened the door for anyone convicted by a jury before 1980. Merle was quickly retried, found guilty, and given the same life sentence.
EDDIE CONWAY: There has been a strange case in the State of Maryland in which almost 230 some prisoners have gained their eligibility for freedom. 160 some have actually been released. The person that fought the longest and the hardest for the release of these prisoners is a prisoner named Merle Unger. And the strangeness of that case is that Merle Unger is one of the few people that is not being released.
JENNY PIPER: Since 2012, over 160 lifers has been released off of our brother’s case. Our brother is 68 years old and has spent almost 42 years in prison. He hasn’t been involved in any violence while in prison. He has learned many skills, gets along very with staff, and helps others. Washington County has reduced the sentences of others convicted of felony murder and/or rape, which led to their release. So they are obviously biased against our brother.
The question we asked is: Is it fair that close to 200 have been released because of our brother’s issue, while he can’t get equal justice? Mr. Charles Strong, the head District Attorney in Hagerstown, Maryland refuses to treat our brother the same as anyone else, perhaps for a personal or political reason. In over four years, not a single one of those released have went back to prison, which is proof that people change as they get older. It costs taxpayers billions each year to keep people 50 and older in prison, while studies shows they are very low risk to commit another crime.
ROBERTA UNGER: The key thing was, we didn’t have TV when we were a child growing up, and we didn’t know anything different than just the things that our parents taught us and stuff. But today it’s out there. But we lived very poorly. We came from a family of 12, and he went through so much verbal and mental abuse and physical abuse. And we all had low self-esteem, and it took us years to go out. You know, the people in prison amaze me. The people that I know here, every one of these lifers it’s left out. There all like brothers to me and stuff, and sisters, and they’re the most loving and giving back to the community people that I ever heard. So we all make mistakes, and when you’re young and don’t know any better, and if people out here that grow up with the low self-esteem and the abuse that he and a lot of these other people, and that’s why they pick on the people, because they’re so poor. Most of your people in prison are poor and can’t fight the justice. But there’s wrong justice done to everyone in the prison system today. And if I can do anything to help anybody out, no one deserves to die in prison.
EDDIE CONWAY: What can people do to maybe help support the effort to win his release? Because obviously there’s hundreds of people that has a vested interest in him gaining his freedom since they gained theirs. So what can people do? Not just those people, but the people’s families and so on, so what can people do?
JENNY PIPER: They can write letters to help him.
EDDIE CONWAY: To who?
JENNY PIPER: I don’t know who you would write them to, probably the governor, or I don’t know who you would write them to.
ROBERTA UNGER: You mean petitions?
EDDIE CONWAY: Well, if he has a lawyer, I would assume that if some kind of way y’all could make that known people could write letters to the lawyer.
JENNY PIPER: To the lawyer.
EDDIE CONWAY: And for the governor. In other words, so that there will always be a copy. The lawyer will have a copy, but then it can be a letter to the governor. I think. I don’t know. Is there anything else you think?
ROBERTA UNGER: Yes. This is for off duty or police officers and things like that, that get killed in the line of duty or lose their life trying to help others, and it’s called Duty Calls, is the poem, and from your family in blue. And he’s doing this from prison too, so he sent these cards to me, and then I make copies. He sends these for free out to people to try to ease their pain from what they’re going through. And then this one, he made up that’s for … It’s called The Life of Roses, another poem that he made. And this is for battered women, rape victims and stuff like that, so when we see anything going on like that, we try to Google it and get to where someone could send these.
JENNY PIPER: An organization, a support group.
EDDIE CONWAY: Does anybody in the family have a website or anything for him?
ROBERTA UNGER: We’re working on that. We’re trying to get that set up, but I don’t know nothing about computers, and I was paying a girl to do it. But she went back to college and I don’t know how far she is on it, but I’m trying to work on that to get a website to put this artwork out. He does a lot of artwork. This is a painting he did. We’ve got lots of them. Yeah. And so we’re trying to get a website set up for him and a podcast as well to try to get out to help reach more people.