- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 19, 2008

ASSOCIATED PRESS

A soldier accused of killing his roommate — a fellow Ranger who served with him in Afghanistan — went on trial yesterday in Montgomery County in a case that will touch on how combat affected both men psychologically.

Spc. Michael A. McQueen II died of a single gunshot wound to the right temple in September 2006, in the apartment he had begun sharing with Sgt. Gary Smith just 20 days earlier.

Sgt. Smith threw the weapon, a .38-caliber revolver, into a nearby lake before calling 911. He was covered in Spc. McQueen’s blood and had gunshot residue on his hands when he was arrested, and prosecutor John Maloney said he repeatedly changed his story to investigators.

“This is a homicide. Gary Smith is the person that did it,” Mr. Maloney told jurors in his opening statement. “The most important thing you’ll bring to your deliberations is your common sense.”

Sgt. Smith’s attorney, Andrew Jezic, said Spc. McQueen, 22, committed suicide and Sgt. Smith, despondent over the loss of his buddy, tried to cover up the circumstances of the death by removing evidence from the scene.

“There is no motive in this case. Zero,” Mr. Jezic said.

Both sides concede there is no direct evidence that Spc. McQueen was suicidal and no concrete motive for Sgt. Smith, 25, to kill him. Although they dispute the closeness of the young men’s friendship, the two had served together in Afghanistan and had partied together frequently in the brief time they lived in the apartment in Gaithersburg.

The two men had been in a U.S. Army Ranger intelligence unit and met at Fort Benning, Ga. Sgt. Smith could get life without parole if convicted of first-degree murder.

Mr. Jezic said his client, who served in Iraq in addition to Afghanistan, suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder and slept with a gun underneath his pillow. According to court records, Sgt. Smith said he saw a friend die in Iraq and was hit by a bullet himself, saved only by his protective body armor.

Mr. Jezic also plans to present evidence that Spc. McQueen was under psychological strain. He had returned from his third tour in Afghanistan about two months before his death.

“He wasn’t enrolled in school, he wasn’t employed and he was drinking heavily,” Mr. Jezic said. “He was dealing with some tremendously difficult issues.”

Prosecutors and Spc. McQueen’s family dispute that claim, characterizing him as a fun-loving man with a bright future who was preparing to enroll at the University of the District of Columbia.

Prosecutors said Spc. McQueen was not particularly close with Sgt. Smith, a native of Derwood, and agreed to share an apartment with him only after Sgt. Smith’s plans to live with another friend failed.

In afternoon testimony, Mike McQueen, the father of Spc. McQueen, said he had never heard Sgt. Smith’s name until after his son died.

Mr. McQueen is the New Orleans bureau chief for the Associated Press.

In an interview with the AP outside the courtroom, Sgt. Smith’s parents, Randy and Rosemary Smith, strongly disputed the prosecution’s contention that the young men were not close.

“Both of those young men were good soldiers, good Rangers, good friends,” said Mrs. Smith, who added that she was speaking against her attorney’s advice. “They cared deeply about one another.”

The parents’ account of their son’s remorse contrasts with Sgt. Smith’s demeanor during a lengthy interview with homicide detectives, Mr. Maloney said in his opening statement. He told the jury that Sgt. Smith gave different accounts of his roommate’s death in the interview, the video of which will be played during the trial.

Sgt. Smith initially said he had not been in the apartment when Spc. McQueen was shot, but changed his story after detectives suggested that perhaps Spc. McQueen killed himself, Mr. Maloney said.

“He tells the story over and over again,” Mr. Maloney said. “Each telling, he cannot keep the facts straight.”

Mr. Maloney showed graphic crime-scene photos to the jury. When Spc. McQueen was shot, he was sitting in a folding chair, wearing a white T-shirt and shorts. A beer bottle, marijuana and drug paraphernalia and a video-game controller sat on the floor. Some of his relatives averted their eyes when the pictures were shown, while his father stared straight ahead.

Later yesterday, Ronnie McKay, the friend with whom Spc. McQueen had hoped to live before moving in with Sgt. Smith, testified that he spoke with Spc. McQueen on the day he died and that he expressed concern about Sgt. Smith’s mental state.

“He said he can’t live there at the apartment anymore,” said Mr. McKay, who also is a former Ranger. “He said Gary’s not right in the head.”

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