Merle Unger was 18 when he first escaped from jail in 1967. A high school drop-out and petty criminal in Greencastle, Penn., Unger would tie bed sheets together to get out of jail in the evenings so he could visit his girlfriend and play bingo. It worked well—until a sheriff's deputy showed up at the same bingo game. And so began Unger's pattern of arrests and escapes that lasted into the '80s. Ultimately, Jason Fagone writes in a lengthy Huffington Post piece, Unger's attempts to finally escape prison through the legal system, rather than a busted skylight, led to "an unexpected kind of door," which 143 inmates have since used to walk out of prison. In the article titled "Meet the Ungers," Fagone delves into Unger v. State, calling it "essentially a natural experiment in the controlled release of violent offenders" in Maryland.
In 2012, Unger won a suit claiming his constitutional rights were violated by the way the judge gave jury instructions at his 1976 trial for killing a police officer during one of his stints on the run (he had been sentenced to life plus 40 years). Until 1980, juries were told not only to determine the facts of a case, but also the law itself. While Unger was re-convicted in a 2013 trial, the cases of dozens of other inmates in prison for decades for murder, rape, and other violent crimes were settled, meaning they were released. "I'm happy for all [of] them," Unger, who is still fighting his case, tells Fagone, "Because they all deserved a second chance." And they seem to be making the most of it: None of the 143 former inmates has reoffended. Those affected by their original crimes, however, are distressed by the development: "We know he’s already killed once," the brother of a murder victim says of a released inmate. "Why not kill again?" In his article, Fagone focuses on the post-release lives of a handful of inmates who call themselves "the Ungers." Read the whole story here. (Read more Maryland stories.)