Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Smith guilty of fellow Ranger’s death

Attorney says he will appeal verdict, which was reached after less than a day of deliberations

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Families of both the victim and killer in a murder trial that ended with a guilty verdict last week say that their sons, both U.S. Army Rangers who served in Afghanistan, were negatively portrayed leading up to and during the 11-day trial.

Gary James Smith, 25, was found guilty of second-degree murder and use of a handgun in the commission of a crime of violence in the September 2006 death of Michael McQueen Jr., 22, his roommate of three weeks.

The jury reached its verdict on April 2 after less than a day of deliberations. Smith faces a maximum of 50 years in prison and is scheduled to be sentenced in Montgomery County Circuit Court on May 27. Smith was originally indicted on first-degree murder charges. Second-degree murder is defined as an intentional killing caused that is not premeditated or committed in the heat of passion, according to state law.

McQueen was found in his Gaithersburg apartment dead from a single gunshot wound to the temple after a night of drinking and smoking marijuana with Smith. Smith threw the gun, which he had retrieved that night from his parents’ home in Derwood, into Lake Needwood before calling 9-1-1. He told police multiple stories.

Smith eventually conceded he was in the apartment when McQueen died but said he was exiting the bathroom when the fatal shot went off.

The defense claimed Smith dumped the gun because he was scared he would be blamed for his friend’s suicide. The state countered that McQueen, who grew up in Miami, showed no signs of depression and that physical evidence pointed to murder.

At a Thursday press conference, county State’s Attorney John J. McCarthy said the jury quickly ruled out suicide and spent most of the day determining the level of homicide. He added that McQueen ‘‘had his reputation and name tarnished by the defense.”

‘‘The defense essentially slimed my son to a national audience,” McQueen’s father, Michael McQueen Sr., said in an interview with The Gazette. ‘‘They said he was drunk, despondent, essentially suicidal. I thought that was totally unnecessary.”

During the 11-day trial, the defense said McQueen, who was transitioning into civilian life after three tours in Afghanistan, was unemployed and out of school.

McQueen had been accepted into the University of the District of Columbia, his parents said. He planned to enroll for the winter term and wanted to transfer to Howard University for international law. He had joined the Army Reserve and arranged to attend a military job fair the week of his death.

‘‘We argued that it was either an accident or an impulsive suicide, not something that was premeditated at all,” said Jezic in response to McCarthy. ‘‘... We reiterated that [McQueen] was a great soldier, a great son, a great person and a great friend.”

Smith’s family was also upset with the way their son was portrayed in the 18 months leading up to the trial.

The defense posited that post traumatic stress disorder could account for Smith’s behavior after McQueen’s death. His mother, Rosemary Smith, said in an interview during the trial that the family had been hurt by rumors that Smith had exaggerated his war experience and was lying about PTSD. Both Smith, who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, and McQueen worked in military intelligence.

The family disagreed with the state’s portrayal of the two men as casual acquaintances. McQueen’s family maintains that he moved in with Smith only after other arrangements fell through.

McQueen stayed with the Smiths for about a week before they found the apartment, and Rosemary Smith described them as ‘‘joined at the hip.”

‘‘This has been an excruciating situation for our family, for the McQueens, everybody,” she said during the trial.

Another question that remains unresolved is what happened in the moments leading up to McQueen’s death. Prosecutors did not offer a motive. And those answers may never come, Michael McQueen Sr. said.

‘‘Michael is dead, and there can never be closure,” he said.