After 12 days of gruesome and conflicting testimony, and more than 12 hours of deliberation, a sharply divided Montgomery County jury convicted former Army Ranger Gary Smith of involuntary manslaughter Wednesday in the 2006 shooting death of his roommate and fellow Ranger Michael McQueen.
Prosecutors had argued that Smith put a gun to McQueen’s head and shot him in their Gaithersburg apartment, then lied to police in an attempt to cover up the crime. Defense attorneys contended that McQueen shot himself — either accidentally or on purpose.
In the end, sparring jurors faced two choices: Find a compromise or hang the jury, two jurors said in interviews. They elected to compromise, rejecting the most serious charge — a form of second-degree murder — and finding instead that Smith had been “grossly negligent” and had caused McQueen’s death. They also convicted Smith of a gun charge.
As Smith was handcuffed and led from the courtroom, his sister, crying, yelled, “Gary, I love you.” His mother repeated those words.
McQueen’s mother, Glenda, said that her family had hoped for a guilty verdict on the murder charge but that at least a jury had, for a second time, rejected the claim that her son committed suicide.
“They could see through his lies when he was trying to say Michael killed himself,” McQueen said.
In 2008, Smith was found guilty of second-degree “depraved heart” murder, meaning that he killed McQueen while acting with “extreme disregard for human life.” An appeals court overturned that conviction last year because a judge had not allowed a jury to hear testimony on McQueen’s state of mind after a drunken-driving arrest weeks before his death.
“My son was cheated,” McQueen said. “He did have a verdict I think was more just.”
Michael McQueen, 22, was found dead early in the morning of Sept. 26, 2006, after he and Smith spent a night smoking marijuana and drinking. The elite soldiers had served together in Afghanistan.
The trial hinged on efforts by each side to build up or knock down the credibility of witnesses. Particular focus was placed on the words of Smith, who did not take the stand but spoke for hours to jurors through a grainy video recording of his police interrogation.
Smith made repeated and emphatic declarations that he was telling the truth, at one point swearing on the graves of his fallen Ranger buddies. But his story changed, and he apologized for lying.
Smith initially said he had come home to find his friend dead. Later, he said he loaded a gun outside, brought it upstairs and put it near McQueen, who shot himself. Then he panicked, he said, and took the gun, removed the bullets and drove to a nearby lake to throw everything away.
Prosecutors said Smith was a cunning liar. Defense attorneys said his initial lies were followed by a consistent and heartfelt account.
Once deliberations began, jurors quickly fell into two groups — guilty and not guilty on the murder charge — according to a juror from each side, who agreed to speak on the condition that they not be identified.
The jurors brought out the bloody, low-slung chair where McQueen died, and one of the jurors sat in it as they recreated the scene.
The panel was divided eight to four, with the majority wanting to convict on the murder charge, according to one juror who believed Smith was guilty on that count.
The juror was dissatisfied with the outcome, and with some jurors who were focused more on “gut feeling” than on the evidence. “I don’t feel good about it,” the juror said.
A female juror, who pressed for an acquittal, said the breakdown on murder was six to six.
“We did not believe that Gary held the gun to Mike’s head. Not at all,” she said. She also said she doesn’t think McQueen committed suicide. Whoever pulled the trigger, she said, it was an accident.
As the deliberations stretched over three days, the families at the center of the case staked out space on separate gray couches outside the courtroom.
Glenda McQueen spent hours sitting beside a childhood friend of her husband, Michael, who died after the previous trial. Prosecutors stopped by. Sometimes she sat alone.
Smith was surrounded by friends and relatives, including a young niece who ran around with shoes flashing pink lights.
“My stomach right now, it’s sick,” McQueen said.
“My stomach is in knots,” Smith said.
McQueen, who lives in New Orleans, prayed by phone with her mother. Fellow teachers and school staff were praying for her, too, McQueen said.
Smith, 29, said he got a text message from a Ranger buddy who wrote, “Man, I got your back.” While he was in prison, that friend’s mother and others prayed for him, he said.
After his 2008 trial, Smith was sentenced to 30 years for murder and to five years for using a firearm in a felony. He spent nearly four years in prison. The maximum sentence for involuntary manslaughter is 10 years.
Prosecutors initially said the maximum term in the gun charge would be five years, because that was what Smith received in the first trial. But State’s Attorney John McCarthy said the statute is ambiguous, and his office is researching whether the maximum is 20 years.
Smith is set to be sentenced next month. Smith’s attorney Andrew Jezic said the defense would appeal.