A senior drill instructor was found not guilty Friday of negligent homicide and most other charges in connection with the 2021 death of a Marine recruit during the grueling final stage of boot camp.
Staff Sgt. Steven T. Smiley, 35, was in charge of the Pfc. Dalton Beals’ platoon at Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island, South Carolina, when Beals died at age 19 during Crucible, the culminating event of Marine recruit training, in June 2021. Relatives of Beals previously described the to Marine Corps Times as a “gentle giant,” with a sweet nature and a love of pranks.
In November 2022, Smiley was charged with negligent homicide; obstruction of justice; cruelty, oppression or maltreatment of subordinates; and failure to obey orders, a charge with four specifications, or descriptions of the alleged offense, according to his charge sheets.
A jury at the South Carolina boot camp found Smiley not guilty of most charges but convicted him of one specification of violation of the recruit training order for using nicknames like “war pigs” to refer to his recruits, Task & Purpose first reported. In the report summarizing an investigation conducted by the command, several recruits in the platoon said they found the nickname motivating.
At trial at the depot, prosecutor Lt. Col. Ian Germain contended that Smiley had set out to “break recruits” rather than “make Marines,” and had failed to heed signs of heat exhaustion in Beals or listen to recruits’ concerns about their peer’s health, The Beaufort Gazette reported.
Smiley’s lawyer, Colby Vokey, a Marine veteran, countered that Smiley was no criminal but rather a drill instructor doing his job, the Gazette reported.
The prosecution and the defense clashed over the cause of Beals’ death.
An initial autopsy determined Beals had died from overheating, but the medical examiner who conducted a second autopsy found Beals, who played football and wrestled in high school, had died from an unpreventable heart issue.
Dr. Gerald Feigin, that second medical examiner, said in an email to the defense in March, “I find it reprehensible that anyone is charged with a crime in this case,” Marine Corps Times first reported.
Feigin told Marine Corps Times in April that the pathologist who conducted the first autopsy apparently had examined less than half the heart and so hadn’t observed the scarring that was visible both to the naked eye and with a microscope.
Marine Corps Times requested comment from the families of Beals and Smiley and from Smiley’s command on Friday evening and did not receive responses by Monday afternoon.
Vokey told Marine Corps Times on Monday that he had assumed the Marine Corps would dismiss the negligent homicide charge after seeing the evidence from the second autopsy.
The defense team had even offered to plead guilty to the name-calling in exchange, Vokey said. But the government continued its prosecution for negligent homicide.
“It’s one of the most astounding, outrageous things that I’ve seen in a number of years,” Vokey said.
Vokey maintained that Smiley used “war pigs” as a collective name for his recruits, with their approval, rather than as an nickname for individuals.
“As ridiculous as it sounds, and it is ridiculous, the fact that he was convicted for calling his recruits a nickname will now bar him from possessing a weapon for the rest of his life,” along with other possible limitations, Vokey said.
The defense team hasn’t yet decided on next steps, according to Vokey.
Smiley will be reduced in rank to sergeant and, because he has passed his end of active service date and can’t reenlist because of the conviction, will leave the Marine Corps, Vokey said.
The outcome of this trial is reminiscent of another high-profile recent case in the Marine Corps, in which two Marine Raiders were acquitted in February of homicide in connection with the January 2019 death in Iraq of a military contractor but convicted of violating an order against drinking. The Raiders unsuccessfully asked their commanding general to set aside that felony conviction.
Editor’s note: This Friday breaking news story was updated Monday and Tuesday with more information and comments from Vokey.
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.