The trial of ex-Army Ranger Gary Smith: Day 1


Gary Smith, the defendant in an ongoing homicide trial in Montgomery County. (Courtesy of Gary Smith Family)
August 30, 2012

Former Army Ranger Gary Smith is on trial in Montgomery County Circuit Court, accused in the 2006 fatal shooting of his roommate, fellow ranger Michael McQueen. You can follow the daily court proceedings at washingtonpost.com/crime.

McQueen was found dead in the Gaithersburg apartment the two men shared. Though Smith’s lawyers argued that McQueen shot himself, Smith was found guilty in 2008 of “depraved heart murder,” a form of second-degree murder.

But in 2011, Maryland’s highest court threw out the conviction, saying that crucial information had been wrongly withheld from jurors. Smith’s retrial began Aug. 30.

Trial day 1

Aug. 30, 2012

9 a.m.: Former Army Ranger Gary Smith and his father were in a Maryland courtroom waiting for Smith’s second murder trial to begin. Gary noticed his dad holding a Nelson DeMille thriller and Gary said his favorite is Michael Crichton.

At 9:05 a.m., one of the defense attorneys straightened Gary Smith’s blue tie. Montgomery County Circuit Court judge Eric M. Johnson walked in five minutes later, followed by Glenda and Otto McQueen, the mother and brother of Michael McQueen, who died of a gunshot wound to the head Sept. 26, 2006.

A clerk put a green box of tissues in front of the jury box.

A single juror entered and spoke to the judge and lawyers. An official from the state’s attorney’s office said the was concerned because he had read an article Monday about the trial. At 9:57 a.m., the judge called for the jury, and each of the 15 members of the panel were quizzed in front of Johnson, with a white noise machine obscuring the conversations.

The juror who had first approached the judge left the courtroom.

10:13 a.m.: Deputy State’s Attorney John Maloney walked up to the remaining 14 jurors and began his opening statement.

Maloney told the jury that Smith walked up to McQueen, his roommate and fellow Ranger, after a night of drinking, put a .38-caliber handgun to the side of McQueen’s head and pulled the trigger. Smith then began covering up the murder scene and began hours of lying to police, Maloney said.

Smith eventually told police that McQueen had shot himself, Maloney said.

Maloney rejected that, he told the jurors.

“Twenty two-year-old Mike McQueen . . . had too much going for him to die so young,” Maloney said.

“Mike was very happy . . . very forward looking,” Maloney said. “He was going to go to the University of the District of Columbia and then transfer to Howard.”

Maloney said McQueen had raised concerns about Smith.

“Mike said, ‘Gary’s not right in the head. I can’t stay with him much longer,’ ” Maloney told the jury.

Maloney played a tape of a Smith’s 911 call, calling it “over the top and exaggerated.”

“I came home and my roommate’s dead,” Smith says on the tape. He is wailing and largely unintelligible on much of it.

Maloney also played snatches of Smith speaking later as he was questioned by detectives, and told the jury that Smith lied over and over again.

10:56 a.m.: Maloney showed a picture of McQueen’s bloody head. McQueen’s mother avoided looking, peering downward, her right hand on her face.

11:02 a.m.: Barry H. Helfand, one of Smith’s attorneys, thanked the jury for their patience. The trial had been delayed a couple days because of his emergency hernia surgery.

Helfand walked the jury though the crime for which Smith is on trial: second-degree depraved heart murder. He told them they are not facing the question of whether the murder was premeditated or even intentional; they are to decide if Smith acted with extreme disregard for human life.

Helfand conceded that his client had lied, then proceeded to raise a series of questions about the scientific evidence the jury will soon hear.

The evidence shows McQueen committed “suicide” or “was horsing around on his own” when he died, Helfand told the jurors.

“The weapon was in Mr. McQueen’s hand when it was fired,” he said.

He also questioned whether McQueen was as happy as the prosecution said. He noted that McQueen told a Georgia police officer, after being charged with a DUI, that it was the last thing he needed given all the [expletive] going on in his life.

Helfand also referred to McQueen’s military service, saying it had changed him. “Heaven knows what happens to the young men” who are sent over there, Helfand said.

The defense lawyer also pointed to testimony that would come from a blood spatter expert originally consulted by the prosecution.

12:26 p.m: Judge Johnson broke for lunch and the jury filed out, followed by Glenda and Otto McQueen.

“It’s horrendous,” Glenda McQueen said. “We thought this chapter was closed.”

Her husband, Michael McQueen, died almost three years ago. He had been struggling with congestive heart failure, she said, and the aftermath of his son’s death sapped his strength. “The trial took a lot of that,” she said.

2:00 p.m.: The jurors returned from lunch and prosecutor John Maloney called Glenda McQueen to the stand.

She’s been an English teacher and journalist, and she lives in New Orleans, where her husband was the AP bureau chief. She also was at times a stay-home mother, doing some journalism on the side.

Maloney asked her what her son, Michael, was like as a kid. “Rambunctious,” she said. “He was adventuresome.” He played YMCA sports, loved football. The family, which lived for a while in Miami, would take cold weather vacations. Michael loved to ski.

Maloney asked about Michael McQueen’s romances. He had met a woman, his mother said, “with her own dreams and her own opinions.” She wanted to be a doctor. He wanted to be an international lawyer.

“He imagined them being a power couple,” Glenda McQueen said.

He joined the military after the 9-11 attacks because “he felt like he needed to do his part.” He was deployed three times to Afghanistan as a Ranger, doing military intelligence.

Her husband, always the journalist, asked their son about his work, but he wouldn’t say. At times he went on missions with the CIA.

He was leaving the military and had been accepted at the University of the District of Columbia, but it took so long to handle his military paperwork that he missed the deadline for the fall semester in 2006. He enrolled, but would have to wait until winter to take classes. “He was in good spirits,” she said.

He had wanted to live with a buddy in the Baltimore area, but plans had to change because the friend was moving in with his girlfriend.

Maloney asked: “Had you ever heard of Gary Smith?”

“No,” she said, not until after her son’s death.

Maloney asked if her son had financial problems. Not that she knew of, she said, and she would have given him money if he needed it.

Shortly before her son was found dead, he had called her to talk about food.

“He was always interested in cooking and entertaining,” she said, something the family did a lot. “He wanted to fix a Shepherd’s pie. I had given him my recipe.”

She said her son was “fun-loving” before the military, and remained so after, but “he was just much more focused on where he wanted to go in life.”

Was he depressed? Maloney asked.

“Not that I saw. He was just making plans” about where he wanted to go and how he wanted to get there, she said.

Her husband was at the office when he learned Michael was dead. “He called the house, and came home and told us he had passed, he was killed. It was the worst day of my life.”

She remembered his return from Afghanistan.

“He comes home safely and something like this happened,” she said.

2:22 p.m.: Defense attorney Barry Helfand began questioning Glenda McQueen, introducing himself as the man representing the man accused of killing her son.

He told her the thrust of her testimony, as he understood it, was that Michael McQueen wouldn’t have committed suicide, because he was forward looking.

“My point is, I knew my son from the time he was born,” Glenda McQueen said. He was “truly, deeply optimistic about life. That’s one thing you can’t take away from a person,” she said. “No, I don’t believe he committed suicide.”

Helfand asked about Michael being a “C” student, about whether he got in trouble as a kid. Just “normal stuff,” she responded, like once in the 11th or 12th grade he stayed out too late.

And about whether her son had “alcohol problems,” and used marijuana before joining he military.

“Not that I know of,” she said.

What about during?

“No. He wouldn’t talk to us about that kind of stuff,” she said.

“Did there come a time,” Helfand asked, when she learned about her son’s DUI arrest?

“I did not find out until after his death,” she said.

And when she said he had matured because of his time in the military, what did that mean?

“He didn’t keep his room like a teenager anymore,” she said. He asked her to look at his resume. “He wanted to make sure everything was kept in the right order, everything from the way he kept his room to the way he kept his papers.”

Glenda McQueen said her son spoke of heading up into the mountains when he was overseas, and having to stay there overnight. He’d tell stories about his social life.

Any details about drinking and drugs? Helfand asked.

No, she she, she meant the things the soldiers would do for fun. Like the monkeys.

“They had captured two monkeys, and he was responsible for training them,” she said.

Helfand established that Michael McQueen got a bunch of tattoos in the military, then asked if her son was a “gun fanatic.”

Maloney made an objection, which the judge sustained.

When Michael McQueen was unable to live with the guy he had planned to, he told his mom he was going to move in with a Ranger and was “upbeat” about it, she said.

Helfand asked about money. She sent her son a $1,300 credit card to buy furniture, but, from the looks of the apartment, “it didn’t look like he did.”

Helfand asked whether her son had raised concerns that his new girlfriend might be pregnant.

“No,” she said.

Had he regretted going into the army?

“No,” she said.

2:59 p.m.: Glenda McQueen peered at the lawyers consulting at the defense table.

She said her son had been approached about joining up with private military contractors. “They had offered him a lot of money,” she said. But she and her husband encouraged him to move on.

Michael McQueen had signed up for the reserves, and Helfand asked if Glenda McQueen knew that drug and alcohol issues could affect his signing bonus. They also discussed another alcohol related incident in Alabama.

Helfand asked about the conversation with the Georgia officer connected to the DUI arrest there.

Helfand quoted the officer quoting McQueen: “This is the last thing I need on top of all the other [expletive] I have in my life.”

What is the other [expletive]? he asked her.

Maloney objected. The judge agreed. Glenda McQueen stepped down and went to sit beside her son Otto.

3:15 p.m.: The prosecution called Lynsay Nicole Dodd, a bartender who served the men draft beers hours before McQueen was found dead. They left before finishing their beers, but there was no sign they were arguing, Dodd said.

3:23 p.m.: Judge Johnson called for a break. A couple minutes later, Helfand approached Glenda McQueen, who was sitting on a courtroom bench, saying the word “sorry” and that he was “paid to be here and do stuff. It doesn’t mean I’m not a grandfather.”

Helfand headed out of the courtroom and stopped to chat with Otto McQueen, asking him questions and putting a hand on Otto’s arm.

“Otto,” Glenda McQueen called out.

Glenda asked someone from the prosecutor’s office to bring her son back to her.

3:37 p.m.: Prosecutors called Lara Schuyler. She had run into Gary Smith a couple weeks before McQueen died, and she gave him her number. She had known him in high school. Smith was “drunk dialing” her on the night he and McQueen had been drinking, she said. He called her from the same phone he would use early the next morning to call 911.

Did he express any emotion? Maloney asked

“No,” she said.

Didn’t you tell police that he had been upset?

Yes, she said.

Did he say about what?

“No.”

“He told me I was a really good friend. He repeated that over and over. We talked about how people suck,” she said.

But you previously said Gary Smith was the one who said “people suck,” Maloney said.

She agreed, then continued, saying she was complaining to Gary “that someone had just hung up the phone on me” right before he called.

Helfand later pressed the point.

“I don’t remember who said, ‘people suck’ first,” she said.

Does it make sense that Gary Smith would have been responding to your complaint about the hang-up?

“The would make sense,” she said.

The judge excused the jurors, who walked out of the courtroom, leaving their notebooks on their chairs.

4:00 p.m.: Outside the courtroom, Otto McQueen called the day, and the repeat trial, “an ordeal. It’s absolutely emotionally draining,” he said.

He also thought of his father, who struggled with a heart condition during the 2008 trial.

“It was wearing him out being here. It was almost like there was a ghost on his shoulder, just draining him,” Otto McQueen said.

He said the attention on the trial this time around makes the family feel like “mice under a looking glass.”

Glenda McQueen said she was beginning to get a deeper understanding of where the trial is headed, and “how much they will try to persecute my son, his name, his personality.”

Her son was being “denigrated and maligned” in court, she said. Many different kinds of people end up with a DUI, professionals among them, she said.

She said the defense was able to see holes in the case from last time.

“The only way to prove their case is to assassinate my son’s reputation, assassinate who he is,” she said.

A defense lawyer said he could not talk to the media.

Lara Schuyler and Gary Smith hugged warmly before she got in the elevator to leave the courthouse.

Gary Smith’s grandfather, who’s name is also Gary Smith, said it was still early, “but I’m very encouraged of what the end result of this will be.”

“It’s painful to go through this for both our family and the McQueen family,” he said.

But, he said, “I feel my grandson is innocent.”

“This time I think he’ll be exonerated, I really do,” he said.

Go to Day 2 of the trial.

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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