Thursday, March 22, 2007

The Visual Is Powerful

Washington County Circuit Court judge ruled Friday that a man convicted of killing a Hagerstown police officer more than 30 years ago is entitled to a new trial.

Washington County Deputy State's Attorney Joseph S. Michael said his office and the Maryland Attorney General's Office will appeal the ruling in the Special Court of Appeals to retry Merle W. Unger Jr.

Unger, 57, is serving a sentence of life plus 40 years for murdering Officer Donald Kline during a gun battle on Dec. 13, 1975.

Kline was off duty and tried to arrest Unger after he robbed a Hagerstown business.

Unger will remain in prison while the appeal is processed.

"We are confident that Mr. Unger will serve the rest of his life in jail for killing Donald Kline. ... We believe Mr. Unger got a fair trial," Michael said during a Tuesday press conference where he was flanked by a handful of Hagerstown police officers.

Michael said the ruling of a higher court in a case similar to Unger's prompted Washington County Circuit Judge Donald E. Beachley to order another trial.

The Washington County State's Attorney's Office is disappointed by the ruling, but understands that Beachley was bound by law to make his decision, Michael said.

Unger has escaped from custody at least eight times, Michael said. Authorities will take special precautions to ensure that doesn't happen again should another trial occur, he said.

If the case is tried again, Michael said Unger's confession to Kline's murder probably would be reintroduced.

"We expect all of that evidence to bear against him again. ... It is still possible there won't be another trial," Michael said.

The Maryland Attorney's General Office will argue the appeal, he said. The Washington County State's Attorney's Office would retry the case.

Hagerstown Police Chief Arthur Smith said he regretted that Kline's family will have to "relive this again."

Seeing this in the "old-fashioned" version of The Herald Mail gave me a jerk of recognition.

The murder of Officer Donald Kline occurred two years prior to my birth, so this story didn't dredge up unpleasant memories of outrage and despair over the callous dispatch of an officer of the law. Nor did anyone in my family know Kline. However, within a few years after this tragedy, our clan would welcome two Hagerstown PD street cops into the circle. One married my oldest sister; he would eventually rise to the rank of Lieutenant and retire with honor. The other wed my second-oldest sister; in life and in vocation, he never rose beyond the status of bitter grunt. Their marriage lacked the durability of its counterpart, ending after eight years. Despite the passage of 13 years since this divorce, this walking talking bit of detritus has kept a steadily nagging (some may even say "stalker-ish") presence in my sisters life--bipolar correspondence left sticking from windshield wipers, vague phone calls regarding the couples trio of classically-alienated sons. Although he now resides in Clear Spring, it's plain to see that those years spent cruising and pounding the perpetually-cracked pavement of Hagerstown as one of its blue finest ingrained in him not only the cynicism, racism, sexism and xenophobia that become trademarks of so many in that line of work, but also the tendency to impose yourself in the life of an ex that so many males in the Hub City possess. (Yes, of course women do this almost as an art form, which is why the preponderence of men unable to move the hell on when a relationship has been ended is by turns puzzling, hilarious, and sad.) I speak more from the experience of friends than myself here; how many times have I had to hear the sad lament of the woman who has had to change her cell # over a rejected former love who calls six times daily just to ask:

1. "Um, what're ya up to?"
2. "So how long are you gonna keep this up till you come back? C'mon."
3. "If you're free, you wanna go to Ledos? I'll pay."

Fortunately, I have no horror stories along the line of, "My friend was butchered by her ex-boyfriend and half her body fed to his bull terrier." Although it is no exaggeration whatsoever to admit that I and other family members have fretted hours about the potential of our sister ending up as a victim. As long as he's alive, that will always remain in our minds.

Times were once better. The now-pariah once ingratiated himself into the hearts of his folks-in-law by arranging for our family reunions to be held at the FOP Lodge. For three straight years, all told. I was in my preteens when these functions occurred, still young enough to be wowed at the drive to, and size of, the actual lodge and surrounding land. The world seeming smaller as you get bigger (read: older) is a cliche, but only for being utterly true.

At this point I was just beginning to hit my peak in terms of antisocial behavior. As my sisters, in-laws, and brats spawned therefrom all mulled and milled around, as tables and chairs were being appropriately placed, as the TV blared some meaningful baseball game (the fact that asshole ex-brother-in-law is a Yankees fanatic is reason no. 876 to despise those pin-striped dickheads), I would be sitting at the far end of a black leather couch, speaking only when spoken to, my verbal economy borne of the discomfort and ennui that would soon intensify when I entered the sheer hellish miasma of high school.

Of all the police paraphernalia displayed within the wood-panelled lodge, nothing impacted my eyes and mind like the black-and-white framed headshots of slain local police, hung in memoriam. There were...four, five? No more than that, just enough to solemnly line one-half of the wall the TV was placed against. The only one I can recall is Donald Kline. Mind you, I never remembered his name; but when I read the front page article yesterday and saw the photo of the officer in was the very same picture as was hung at the FOP Lodge.

The face of Officer Donald Kline as captured in that photograph struck me superficially as belonging to a cop of two decades earlier. A Car 54, Where Are You?-type visage. The lack of color doubtless contributed to and encouraged this impression, but there was more. The fullness of the face, dark hair thinning and slicked-back, prominent ears which struck me most of all. He looked, even in spite of the presence of a discernible dimple, like an exacting type of cop. The type who breathed the badge, who lived for the unpredictability of the streets, the camaraderie of the job, the prestige of the position...the precise kind of cop who, off-duty, would make it his business to try and stop a robbery in progress.

For the time that has elapsed since those family reunions--about 17 years--I have seen, read and heard about many cop killings. As we all have. In almost every instance I have remembered the stern face of that cop whose name, until just recently, I had forgotten. Even when the deaths are fictional.

In my favorite novel of all time, 1974's The Choirboys(a fantastically riveting story of ten LAPD patrolmen written by former cop Joseph Wambaugh) the elder of the foot soldiers is shown shortly after roll call beseeching a lieutenant to hang the framed portrait of his former partner, a recent on-duty suicide, in the precinct along with the other men so honored for losing their lives while in service of the city of Los Angeles. The supervising officer refuses, reminding the infuriated beat cop that, unlike his beloved partner, those men were murdered in the midst of performing police duty. He is unmoved at the officer's insistence that a cop turning the gun on himself is doing so mainly due to the incredible stress brought on by the job, and can thus be said to have died as a result of his police duties as much as the cop who was blasted twice in the head point-blank while trying to break up a robbery.

The detail of the framed portrait took me right back to the one I had seen in the Lodge. I could never shake it. It wasn't that it made me uneasy, mind; just I firmly believe everyone of us has a story, and a damned interesting story at that, and the fact that this officer's tale ended so obviously abruptly fascinated me.
Remember the asshole I used to refer to as my brother-in-law? Well, he and my sister used to live directly next door to my parents when I still lived there, and the proximity cannot be understated. By this time, I was well into high school and the antisocial behavior alluded to earlier was now in bloom. During one particularly brilliant summer I grew fond of going up to the attic and crawling my chunkafied frame out through the window onto the roof. Right next to our window was one where I could peer into my sisters attic. It struck me to check if their window was in any way secured. It was not, and I giddily lifted it and plunged my big self forward.

Amid the piles of toy packaging and decimated Nerf basketball hoops I stumbled--quietly as possible--upon quite the treasure, what I came to recognize as "His Stash." Police procedural manuals, high school yearbooks, Yankees memorabilia, Joseph Wambaugh novels (already a devoted JoWa reader at this time, I was wowed to find these in his possession), and scrapbooks. How many scrapbooks I can't remember; not a hell of a lot. Most of them were filled with clippings from the local paper, detailing some particularly heinous criminal activity, or some outstanding cop heroics. One clipping combined both: the murder of Officer Donald Kline. I was immediately struck--I knew that face, goddamnit. My brother-in-law, I knew by then, was a rookie when the murder went down. I also understood, thanks to Wambaugh's novels, how all cops despaired when a fellow officer was slain.

The impulse to rip the clipping from the page on which it was stuck visited me and left almost in a single step. I placed the scrapbook back and left the attic with some of the police manuals instead.

Melvin Unger will most likely die in prison. Donald Kline will return to the recesses of my memory.

The visual is powerful.

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