New trials granted for MD prison inmates convicted before 1980

Karen Wilson was just 13 years old in 1969 when her father Gene was murdered.

Wilson says her family found a sense of security when the man who stabbed her dad 30 times was finally sentenced to a life term, plus 20 years. She thought he would be locked up forever.

But last month, she got a call she will never forget. Her father’s killer would soon be free because of a recent court ruling.

“I’ve had to relive my father’s death all over again,” she says. “I’ve gone through the grieving process. Re-victimized is the word.”

And it’s all because of a man named Merle Unger, Jr., who shot and killed a Hagerstown police officer in 1975. He was convicted and sent to prison, but last year the Maryland Court of Appeals ruled that the judge’s instructions to the jury violated his right to a fair trial. He was consequently granted a new trial.

Now, because of that ruling, as many as 299 Maryland prison inmates convicted before 1980 may have to be granted new trials.

Prince George’s County Deputy State’s Attorney Tara Jackson says she hopes the trials won’t be granted. Her office has even set up a committee to carefully look at each case.

“Most of these cases are heinous crimes. We believe the sentences were just at the time they were given,” she says. “It may be the witnesses are 70, 80, 90 years old and don't have a great memory of what happened 40 years ago.”

Hundreds of killers statewide may go free, but as for Merle Unger, he was re-convicted two weeks ago all over again at a new trial. He will remain in prison.