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Meet the Ungers
Several decades ago, 229 men and one woman were convicted of terrible crimes. They thought they were going to die in prison. But then, many years later, in a nerve-wracking experiment, they received an unimagined second chance.
He was a 72-year-old man with a messed-up back and he knew he shouldn’t be lifting this stuff, but he was here to help a friend move, and so were some other old guys who had their own issues with bad knees and arthritic joints, so Hercules Williams Jr. plucked a small wooden end table from the back of a U-Haul truck and carried it down the sidewalk, slowly. “That’s the Herc I always knew. Lifting that thing like it was nothing,” shouted 64-year-old Larry Owens, who sometimes walks with a cane. “You’re gonna feel that tomorrow.” “I feel it now,” Williams said, setting the table down and placing a hand on his back. “I feel it now.” Donald Shakir, the beneficiary of all this labor, saw that Williams was having trouble and grabbed the table from his hands, pulling it up the steps and into the living room. Shakir is a muscular 63-year-old with thick black glasses and a bright-orange beard. He’s legally blind and can’t see at all out of his left eye, even with the glasses. He also suffers from arthritis in his knees, but if the pain was bothering him that afternoon, he didn’t let on. He had been leading the operation, telling the guys where to put a chair or a couch, insisting on lifting the heavier objects, pausing every so often to look around at his new neighborhood. He didn’t want to call attention to himself, but this was a big day for him, a setting down of roots after a period of upheaval and wandering. Three years earlier, he had met a woman named Nzinga Amon and fell in love. They moved in together. At first, they slept on a couch in Shakir’s sister’s basement; they had to spoon each other to keep from falling off. “Hoooooo,” Amon says now. “It was hilarious. But what do they say: love is blind?” After that, they moved to a cramped one-bedroom apartment. This new place, though—a house instead of an apartment, with a Formstone facade, on a quiet block in southwest Baltimore? “It means stability,” Amon told me. After the men unpacked the first load of boxes and furniture, they drove the empty U-Haul back to the old place to load up again, passing fans and flower pots through an open first-floor window. Inside, a TV was tuned to the Orioles’ first game of the season. “The Orioles ain’t won nothing since I’ve been home,” Hercules Williams said, shaking his head. He was dressed in an Orioles raincoat and a white Orioles cap. He told me that he went to his first game at Camden Yards three years ago and couldn’t believe the size of it; he’d only ever seen a game at the far smaller Memorial Stadium, which the team abandoned in 1991. “I thought I was in New York City. The crowds, you know? And the gaiety of it all?” he said. “That was the first big positive crowd I saw since I got out.” Every so often these guys let slip a phrase that reveals how long they spent in prison. Forty-one years and four months for Williams. Nearly 44 years for Owens; 41 and change for Shakir. They were all convicted of murder in the early 1970s. Shakir was 19 when he shot and killed a 77-year-old confectioner during a stickup. He wanted money to buy drugs. Owens had just turned 20 when he gunned down a dry cleaner, also during a robbery to fuel a drug habit. The circumstances around Williams’ conviction are murkier. He maintained his innocence and had a strong alibi, but his alleged accomplice testified against him in exchange for immunity, sticking him with the same sentence Shakir and Owens got: life in prison. Back then, lifers who demonstrated good behavior and personal growth could get paroled after 20 or 25 years. But in the following decades, the state’s prison system became more punitive. Maryland is one of three states where the governor can overturn the parole board’s decision to release a prisoner. In 1995, after a lifer named Rodney Stokes committed a brutal murder while on work release, Governor Parris Glendening, a Democrat, said the parole board shouldn’t bother sending him any more applications from lifers, because “life means life.” Every governor since has followed his lead. So by the time Williams and Shakir and Owens had put in their 25 years, it didn’t matter what they had done with their time. They weren’t getting out. They were going to die in prison, with their loved ones far away. But then a fellow inmate named Merle Unger Jr. discovered an unexpected kind of door. Merle Unger. Merle Unger escaped from jail for the first time in 1967, when he was an 18-year-old dropout with an interest in petty crime. People in his native Greencastle, Pennsylvania, saw him as a harmless character—a scrawny kid who figured out how to tie his bedsheets together and climb out of the nearby jail at night so he could see his girlfriend and play bingo at the Catholic church before climbing back into his cell in time for roll call. He did this until a sheriff’s deputy went to play bingo, saw Unger sitting there and was like, wait a minute. Whenever jail officials increased security, Unger found another route out. A local radio station started a Merle Unger Fan Club. His public defender made T-shirts that said, “Merle, baby, where are you?” In 1975, after more escapes and arrests, he found himself locked up in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, fixating on a skylight in the lunchroom, 45 feet up. Early one morning he tied a piece of rope to a 5- or 10-pound dumbbell and wrapped the other end of the rope around his neck. He piled up some tables, put a small step ladder on top of the pile, climbed atop a beam, pulled up the ladder, set it up again, reached higher, hurled the dumbbell through the skylight’s glass, and climbed through the broken window into the December cold, wearing a short-sleeved shirt. “I mean, I’m not proud of that,” Unger told me last month. “I just wanted my freedom.” On the run, Unger made it to Hagerstown, Maryland, where he robbed a grocery store at gunpoint. An off-duty cop, Donald Kline, happened to be shopping at the time and shouted, “Halt, police officer!” When Unger ran, Kline chased him into an alley. Unger opened fire. Kline was hit three times and died in the hospital. Later that night, police found Unger hiding in a house, bleeding from one of Kline’s bullets. But before he could be tried, Unger escaped again, using a hacksaw slipped to him during a visit. He cut the bars of his cell and crawled out through an air duct. His public defender opened the mail one day to find a poem from Unger: “Some say I am un-cool or even a fool / because I escaped again. / But tell me true / What would you do / If your life was at an end?” He fled to Florida and got caught in Orlando. Brought to Talbot County, Maryland, in 1976 to stand trial for the Kline murder, he was convicted and sentenced to life plus 40 years. But Unger had a strong preference for staying in Florida, a preference he expressed in 1981 by escaping a maximum-security prison in Maryland at the wheel of a hijacked dump truck. The FBI led a national manhunt after that episode. He was captured a month later while breaking into a gun store in Clearwater, Florida, and convicted of armed burglary, beginning a tug-of-war between Florida and Maryland for the right to incarcerate him. A Maryland paper splashes the news of Unger's capture six months after he killed Donald Kline. In the middle of all this, in the ’80s, Unger happened to meet a woman. A fellow inmate in Florida had put a personal ad in Mother Earth magazine, and he got so many responses that he sold the extras to other prisoners for a dollar apiece. Unger bought a few, sent letters and a woman from Illinois came to visit. They ended up getting married in 1988 and had two children, both conceived in prison. He says his life changed when he held his infant son for the first time: “I didn’t want to commit no crimes anymore.” In Unger’s telling, this is the moment he developed an obsessive interest in the American legal system. Another friend worked in the prison’s law library and told him about a case in which a federal inmate earned his freedom by challenging the constitutionality of the jury instructions in his trial. Unger spent hours studying the case. It was all he could talk about. And the more he read, the more he thought he might have a shot at winning a new trial on the murder charge if he came back to Maryland to fight it. Today in Maryland, juries are told to decide cases solely by evaluating the facts. But this isn’t what they were told before 1980. As the judge in one 1976 murder trial put it to the jury, “It is your responsibility in this case to determine the facts, as you do in every case, but also it is your responsibility to determine for yourselves what the law is.” The practice was a holdover from the 1700s, when colonists, fearing that tyrannical British judges would run roughshod over their rights, gave juries the power to nullify unjust prosecutions. Over the centuries, though, states moved away from these instructions, because they encouraged juries to second-guess fundamental rights of defendants, like the presumption of innocence and the standard of reasonable doubt. “These are all fragile rights,” says Michael Millemann, a law professor at the University of Maryland. “It’s hard enough to get jurors to enforce when you tell them, ‘That’s the law, you have to do
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