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CSA orders new trial for ex-Ranger convicted of manslaughter

A Maryland appeals court Thursday overturned a former U.S. Army Ranger’s involuntary manslaughter conviction, saying his right to a fair trial was violated when the judge failed to ask jurors if they would be less likely to believe a defense witness.

In ordering a new trial, the intermediate Court of Special Appeals held 3-0 that Gary James Smith had a constitutional right to probe prospective jurors for bias they may hold against witnesses he would call in his defense at his 2012 trial.

The Montgomery County Circuit Court jury subsequently convicted Smith in the shooting death of his roommate and fellow ex-Ranger Michael McQueen II on Sept. 26, 2006. Smith, who was sentenced to 28 years in prison, argued that McQueen had killed himself in their Gaithersburg apartment.

Smith then sought review by the Court of Special Appeals, challenging the judge’s denial of his request to ask would-be jurors the defense-witness question.

“Mr. Smith’s defense-witness question specifically addressed juror perceptions of defense witnesses as presumptively less credible, a perception that would directly infringe upon Mr. Smith’s right to an impartial and fair trial,” Judge Douglas R.M. Nazarian wrote for the appellate court. Judges Michele D. Hotten and Christopher B. Kehoe joined the reported opinion in Gary James Smith v. Maryland, No. 1832, September Term 2012.

Smith had earlier been convicted of second-degree murder in McQueen’s death. But Maryland’s high court overturned that 2008 conviction in November 2011, saying Smith should have been allowed to introduce testimony regarding McQueen’s purported suicidal depression.

The Court of Appeals — in ordering the retrial that resulted in the manslaughter conviction — said the trial judge erroneously barred testimony from Georgia police officer John Hegger, who said he spoke with McQueen after his drunken-driving arrest six weeks before his death. According to Hegger, McQueen said: “This is the last thing I need in my life right now, on top of all the other [stuff] going on in my life.”

About Steve Lash

Steve Lash covers federal and Maryland appellate courts and the General Assembly’s judiciary committees for The Daily Record. He joined the newspaper in 2008 after spending nearly 20 years covering the U.S. Supreme Court and legal affairs for several publications, including the Houston Chronicle, Cox Newspapers, Chicago Daily Law Bulletin and West’s Legal News. Lash, a graduate of American University’s Washington College of Law, is a member of the U.S. Supreme Court and Maryland bars.