By Dan Morse
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 3, 2008
A former Army Ranger was found guilty of second-degree murder yesterday in the slaying of a fellow Ranger who died of a gunshot wound in their Gaithersburg apartment in 2006.
After deliberating for six hours, a Montgomery County Circuit Court jury rejected Gary Smith's claim that his roommate, Michael McQueen II, shot himself while the men were alone in their apartment.
"This man got exactly what he deserved," Michael McQueen, McQueen's father, said of Smith after the verdict was returned. "We're very, very, very relieved."
The defense and prosecution theories of the case pointed to mental struggles faced by many veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. In extremes cases, veterans have harmed others or themselves.
But the defense offered little evidence that McQueen, 22, suffered from depression, jurors said. He had plans to get a haircut, according to testimony, and was going to attend a job fair.
"Nobody bought into" the suicide claim, said a 40-year-old juror, speaking on condition of anonymity to maintain her privacy. "If anything, we thought [Smith] was depressed."
Smith, 25, was found not guilty of first-degree murder, but he was also convicted of a gun charge. A 37-year-old juror, also speaking on condition of anonymity, said prosecutors did not prove that Smith, who had been drinking before the shooting, had formed the requisite premeditation to kill.
Smith did not react when the verdict was read. Judge Eric Johnson revoked his bond, and deputies led him away in handcuffs.
The murder and gun charges are punishable by up to 50 years in prison.
Smith's attorney, Andrew Jezic, said he was "extremely disappointed" and plans to appeal. Smith's father said family members had no comment.
During the 12-day trial, the defense acknowledged that Smith's gun was used in McQueen's death. In the hours after the shooting, which occurred the night of Sept. 26, 2006, Smith removed the bullets from the gun and tossed them all into a lake. Later, he gave detectives conflicting accounts of the night's events.
The disposals of the bullets and gun were particularly incriminating, the 40-year-old juror said.
"Geez, that was probably the one thing we all had issues with, especially the thing about removing the bullets," she said. "That was one of the defining moments of finding his guilt."
Forensic experts offered divergent interpretations of blood evidence from the scene. Two prosecution experts testified that blood evidence showed that Smith was next to McQueen when the fatal shot was fired into the side of McQueen's head. Three defense experts, looking at the same evidence, offered other opinions, allowing for the possibility that Smith was, as he had said, walking from the bathroom to the living room when the shot was fired.
McQueen and Smith served in Afghanistan. Three weeks before the shooting, they moved into the apartment, each eager to start a new chapter in his life.
Prosecutors sought to show that the two weren't close and that McQueen moved in with Smith only after other housing options fell through in the Washington area, where he planned to go to college. A friend of McQueen's testified that hours before his death, McQueen told him that he had to move out of the apartment because Smith was "not right in the head."
Smith's attorney, Jezic, tried to show that the men were good friends and that Smith had no reason to hurt McQueen. In a videotaped interrogation session with detectives, which was played for jurors, Smith called McQueen his "best friend."
Jezic told jurors that prosecutors had showed no clear motive. But the 37-year-old juror said she and others didn't dwell much on why Smith shot his roommate. To them, his behavior afterward was telling.
By Smith's own account, within minutes of McQueen's death, he was worried that he would be accused, and he started planning to cover his tracks. The 37-year-old juror said that wasn't the way someone would have acted if a friend had just placed a gun to his head and shot himself.
Jezic had said in his opening statement that post-traumatic stress could have explained Smith's behavior.
The 37-year-old juror said she was convinced by a prosecution forensic expert, who said that bloodstains found on Smith's pants and shoes were of the sort produced within seconds of a point-blank gunshot wound to the head. "He was right there," she said.
She said she was also swayed by a detail offered during the testimony of Carol Allan, an assistant state medical examiner. The defense had said that McQueen shot himself and that the gun dropped to the floor. Based on her analysis of the crime scene, Allan concluded that it was more likely that a remote control had dropped from McQueen's hand rather than a gun. At the time of the shooting, said the 37-year-old juror, "we thought he was sitting in the chair, channel surfing."
Staff writers Daniel de Vise and Steve Hendrix contributed to this report.