Maryland High Court Decision Calls Into Question Decades Old Murder Convictions

Last year, the Maryland Court of Appeals issued a controversial opinion in the case of Unger v. State of Maryland which has resulted in the recent release of a number of individuals who were convicted decades ago of homicide offenses. As of July of this year, Maryland had released thirteen individuals convicted of murder before 1980, and it is estimated that up to 200 more prisoners that were convicted of violent offenses could assert claims for new trials based on the opinion.

In Unger, the defendant, Merle Unger was convicted of the murder of an off-duty police officer in 1976. At Unger’s trial, the following instruction was given to the jury by the judge:

“[A]nything which I may say about the law, including any instructions which I may give you, is merely advisory and you are not in any way bound by it. You may feel free to reject my advice on the law and to arrive at your own independent conclusions.”

Unger was found guilty of multiple offenses, including felony murder, and sentenced to life imprisonment. Decades later, Unger filed several petitions in Maryland’s court system seeking to have his convictions overturned. Ultimately, Unger’s case made its way to the Maryland Court of Appeals, which held that the jury instruction used in Unger’s case, and many other cases at the time, effectively denied criminal defendants a right to a fair trial by permitting the jury to disregard the law.

The Court opined, “It is undisputed that the trial judge’s instructions at Unger’s 1976 trial, telling the jury that all of the court’s instructions on legal matters were merely advisory,’ were clearly in error, at least as applied to matters implicating federal constitutional rights.”

Based on the Court’s opinion in Unger, a number of defendants convicted of serious offenses such as rape or murder prior to 1980 have issued requests for new trials. A spokesman for the Baltimore City State’s Attorney, Mark Chesire, commented, “Once the initial decision came out we started to get hit with appeals and were fighting them….We look at whether we can go forward with a new trial, what evidence and witnesses still remain and what the prisoner’s record has been in prison.”

According to Mike Millemann of the University of Maryland School of Law, many of the convicts impacted by the Unger decision had “fundamentally unfair trials…[r]eally dysfunctional, structurally defective trials….Their trials were flawed and there is no reason to trust any of the results of those trials.”

As for Unger, he remains in prison at age 64, having been reconvicted in June of this year after another trial.

The knowledgeable attorneys of Brassel, Alexander & Rice, LLC have extensive experience defending individuals that have been charged with serious crimes in Maryland such as rape or murder. If you or someone you know has been charged with a crime in Maryland, contact the attorneys of Brassel, Alexander & Rice, LLC today.