Glenda McQueen revists son’s death during retrial of 2008 murder case


Michael McQueen died in September 2006 of a gunshot wound to the head. The man accused of killing him, Gary Smith, is being tried again for murder. The two men served together in the Army Rangers in Afghanistan, and were roommates in Gaithersburg, where McQueen was found dead. (Courtesy of the McQueen family/Courtesy of the McQueen family)
September 16, 2012

When Glenda McQueen worked as a reporter in violence-torn Miami in the 1980s, she sat with grieving relatives of the dead, trying to capture their anguish.

“I was an outsider looking in,” she said.

But in 2006, her son Michael was shot in the head. His roommate was convicted of killing him while he watched television in their Gaithersburg apartment.

“It’s almost cliche. There’s nothing like it. It’s the kind of pain that I feel every day and I know people that have lost children feel every day,” McQueen said. “I look at people who have children, and I feel cheated. I feel that something precious has been taken from me that I’ll never get back.”

McQueen thinks about Michael at least several times a day, every day. Over the past three weeks, she has spent long hours in a Montgomery County courtroom living through a wrenching do-over of the 2008 murder trial.

The conviction in her son’s death was thrown out by an appeals court last year, and a jury is set to hear closing arguments in the retrial Monday.

As the lawyers in the courtroom projected photos of Michael, his bloody head thrown back in his low-slung chair, she looked down, her turquoise painted fingernails pressing hard against her brow. She couldn’t avoid the onslaught of words — gush, spurt, brain matter — but she could avert her eyes.

Even hearing it could sometimes be too much. One afternoon, after days of testimony, she sat in the lobby outside the courtroom doors trying to read “A Streetcar Named Desire,” preparation for her high school English students back home in New Orleans.

Otto, Michael’s brother, has been alongside her. But this time around her husband, Michael Sr., isn’t with them. He was suffering from congestive heart failure during the first trial and has since passed away, leaving her with another void.

“There were days I just wanted to cry, and he’d be so supportive and say, ‘We have to be strong for Michael’s sake and we have to be focused.’ I miss that,” McQueen said.

McQueen thinks back on her son’s life and the fact that he survived deployments to Afghanistan but died in a Gaithersburg apartment.

She and her husband were surprised when Michael decided to join the military shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

“He didn’t have a straight-up-the-line personality,” she said. In boot camp, a sergeant told him he’d never be a Ranger — which is when he decided “that was exactly what he was going to do.”

She said her son was loving and loyal, the kind of teenager who would invite his mother to play Monopoly and Scrabble with him and his friends, and the kind of adult who stayed in touch with an entourage of friends.

“He had the sense and timing of a comedian,” McQueen said.

In the military, that humor could occasionally irk superiors, as when he insisted on attaching a small G.I. Joe to his belt during training.

And he knew how to tell a story, like the one about being with some of America’s elite war fighters in Afghanistan and training a monkey to drink a can of soda.

“He popped it, and then he showed the monkey, and the monkey looked at him. And then he drank it, and then he showed the monkey,” McQueen said. “Then he handed the monkey the can, and the monkey popped it. He just thought that was the funniest thing.”

It was in the Rangers that Michael McQueen met Gary Smith. The two intelligence analysts served together in Afghanistan, and they later decided to share an apartment as McQueen prepared to go to college in the District.

“When he and Gary first found the apartment, he was excited about getting out on his own,” McQueen said.

Weeks later, Michael was dead.

After giving differing accounts, Smith told detectives he loaded his gun and set it near his roommate, who shot himself. Smith also told detectives he panicked, grabbed the gun and drove a few miles to throw it in a lake.

Glenda McQueen said her son would not kill himself.

She has tried to wrestle with Smith’s defense on its own terms. McQueen said if she discovered a friend who had shot himself, “the first thing I would do is get help. That would mean calling 911. Under no circumstance would I do anything else.”

McQueen returned to New Orleans to teach for a few days last week instead of listening to the defense’s case. “I knew exactly where they were going to go, how they are trying to frame Michael and frame the victim as the person who was responsible,” McQueen said.

Smith's original conviction was overturned because the trial judge refused to allow the jury to hear testimony about McQueen’s state of mind after a DUI arrest weeks before his death. The defense called a forensic expert last week who concluded McQueen’s wound was self-inflicted.

Smith is innocent, said his grandfather, Gary Smith. “This was a very traumatic event for him, to have to relive this,” the grandfather said.

McQueen was back in court Friday, unsure what the 12 new jurors will do.

“I definitely believe he’s guilty. But you know, these folks, the experiences they bring, their backgrounds and what they may be feeling and thinking, it’s a big gamble,” McQueen said.

When McQueen flew up from New Orleans for the 2008 trial, she had had enough of the Washington area. “After he was killed, I used to hate coming up here,” she said.

On Saturday, more than four years later, McQueen was back in Gaithersburg, shopping for enough clothes to get her through the end of the trial.

“I never wanted to come back here,” McQueen said. But, she said, “today, when I was driving around, I thought about how he just loved the area, and how he wanted to make a life here.”

For a day-by-day account of the trial, see washingtonpost.com/crime.

Mike Laris came to Post by way of Los Angeles and Beijing. He’s written about the world’s greatest holstein bull, earth’s biggest pork producer, home builders, the homeless, steel workers and Italian tumors.
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