A military appeals court overturned the conviction of a Marine reservist who was found guilty of involuntary manslaughter in connection with the 2019 death of a college student.
A jury in 2021 convicted Lance Cpl. Samuel B. London, who had been a reservist with the 25th Marines, based out of Fort Devens, Massachusetts, of involuntarily killing Daniel Hollis in an alcohol-fueled scuffle.
London had been accused of punching Hollis, a sophomore at Boston’s Emerson College, in the head in September 2019, causing him to fall and hit his head fatally on a brick-covered ground. His defense had argued Hollis fell to his death after yanking on London’s sweatshirt.
A three-judge panel from the Navy-Marine Corps Court of Criminal Appeals decided in May that there hadn’t been enough evidence to find London guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, reversing the jury’s finding.
But London, who was convicted in December of spitting on a brig guard, likely won’t remain in the Marine Corps: His chain of command has initiated the process to separate him administratively.
A night out gone wrong
The night of Sept. 27, 2019, London was out bar hopping in Boston’s Allston neighborhood while on predeployment leave, Marine Corps Times previously reported.
In the early morning of Sept. 28, 2019, London and two of his friends, Jacob Ryles and Army Sgt. Robert Pankov, went looking for a cigarette lighter.
Hollis and his friends were smoking on a brick walkway on the street, having stepped out of a party hosted by their college’s lacrosse team in the apartment beside them, according to the judges’ opinion. They had been drinking, and some of them, including Hollis, had been smoking marijuana.
The lacrosse players agreed to lend Ryles a lighter, and they all stood in the walkway talking and smoking for a few minutes “without incident,” the judges wrote.
As London’s group started to leave, Ryles said, “See you later, ladies,” and one of the lacrosse players retorted, “See you later, grandmas,” according to the judges’ opinion.
A fight broke out. The two groups of friends later differed about who started it, Marine Corps Times previously reported.
At trial, witnesses gave different accounts of who was standing where and who punched whom, according to the opinion.
But it’s clear that, at some point in the fight, Hollis fell backward, hitting his head on the brick walkway and fracturing his skull, the opinion recounted. Despite being whisked to the hospital for emergency surgery, the 19-year-old student, who loved playing lacrosse with his teammates and had a big smile, died.
While the prosecution would argue that London punched Hollis, the defense presented another theory of what happened: Hollis had been pulling on London’s sweatshirt, and when it ripped, the force of his own pulling had knocked him backward.
In February 2020, a civilian grand jury decided not to indict London for allegedly causing Hollis’ death. But the Marine Corps charged him in November 2020 with one count of murder, one count of voluntary manslaughter, one count of involuntary manslaughter, two counts of assault consummated by a battery and one count of wrongful use of a controlled substance.
In the view of retired Navy Capt. Don King, of King Military Law, which represented London in the appeal, the Marine Corps never should have sent London to a general court-martial.
“I fear that this decision (to charge London) was the result of a campaign blitz by the family, an overreactive, deficient NCIS investigation, and an attitude of, ‘I’m not going to make the decision. Let’s just send it to the jury and let the jury decide,’” King said.
Complications with the evidence
A witness who had been at the scene of the fight told police the night it happened that she hadn’t seen anyone punch Hollis, according to King.
But when Naval Criminal Investigative Service agents interviewed that witness a year later, she said she had seen someone she couldn’t identify punch Hollis, King recounted.
Another year later, days before the trial started at Quantico, Virginia, in June 2021, that witness told prosecutors she had seen London punch Hollis, according to King.
“The prosecution never turned that over to the defense and tried to use it at trial, and that’s a violation of a major rule for lawyers,” King said. “To hide that evidence from the defense is an absolute no-no, an absolute ethical violation.”
The witness said on the stand that London had punched Hollis, catching the defense off guard. The military judge chastised the prosecution and told the jury the next day to disregard that testimony, according to London’s appellate brief.
The jury convicted London of one charge, involuntary manslaughter, and sentenced him to reduction in rank to E-1, five years and five months of confinement, and a dishonorable discharge, Marine Corps Times previously reported.
London’s lawyers appealed to the Navy-Marine Corps Court of Criminal Appeals for reasons that included insufficient evidence and prosecutorial misconduct.
The three appellate judges dismissed London’s conviction and sentence because of insufficient evidence, so they didn’t evaluate the alleged misconduct or other issues London’s lawyers raised.
“The Defense presented an equally plausible theory that Mr. Hotel’s injuries could have resulted from him pulling on Appellant’s sweatshirt and falling backwards when it ripped,” the judges wrote, using a pseudonym for Hollis.
It’s uncommon for military appeals courts to overturn a homicide conviction because of insufficient evidence, King said.
Military appeals courts, unlike most of their civilian counterparts, are authorized to assess whether juries made a factual error in reaching their verdicts, King noted.
Marine Corps Times attempted to reach Hollis’ family for comment through a form on the website of the Daniel J. Hollis Foundation, a charitable organization set up in the young man’s memory, but did not hear a response.
The Marine Corps did not provide comment on the case, besides factual answers about London’s status in the Marine Corps.
While London was serving time in the brig at Camp Pendleton, California, he got into more trouble with the Marine Corps.
In December 2022, months before his involuntary manslaughter conviction was overturned, he was convicted by a special-court martial after he pleaded guilty to assaulting a law enforcement officer by, according to his charge sheet, spitting on a corporal who worked in brig security.
The judge sentenced London, who already was imprisoned, to one month of confinement.
London did not respond to a Marine Corps Times request for comment.
King said London has been freed from the brig but declined to comment on the assault conviction because he did not represent London for that issue.
As of Friday, London’s chain of command was in the process of pursuing administrative separation for the Marine, according to Justin Smith, a spokesman for the Corps.
“A final determination has not yet been made,” Smith said in a statement Friday.
Irene Loewenson is a staff reporter for Marine Corps Times. She joined Military Times as an editorial fellow in August 2022. She is a graduate of Williams College, where she was the editor-in-chief of the student newspaper.