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USMC drill instructor found not guilty in death of recruit

U.S. Marine Corps Staff Sergeant Steven Smiley arrives at Marine Corps Defense Services Organization Branch Office on Wednesday, July 26, 2023 in the continuation of his court martial on Marine Recruit Depot Parris Island. Smiley has plead not guilty to the charge of negligent homicide in the June 4, 2021 death of recruit Dalton Beals during “The Crucible.” 

Karl Puckett
The State

An eight-person military jury took two hours Friday to find Staff Sgt. Steven Smiley not guilty of negligent homicide and four other counts in the death of Marine recruit Dalton Beals in 2021.

The jury found Smiley guilty of one of the charges: Violation of a general order that forbids drill instructors from calling recruits names. Smiley called recruits “pig” and “war pigs” and “sweet bacon” during training.

Smiley was given the choice of having Col. Adam J. Workman, the judge, or the jury hand down his sentence. He chose the jury. The sentence was a reduction in rank from staff sergeant to sergeant.

Besides the negligent homicide charge, Smiley was found not guilty of dereliction of duty resulting in death; obstruction of justice; cruelty, oppression or maltreatment of subordinates; and dereliction in the performances of his duties.

As the verdict was read by the foreman, Smiley leaned forward with his head down and hands on the table. His wife, seated behind him in the front row, wept. Smiley became emotional and paused as he read a statement to the court. An attorney placed an arm around his back as he spoke.

Smiley’s comments included a message to the Beals family, “I’m sorry what happened to your son.” If something similar happened to his family, Smiley added, “I wouldn’t know what to do.”

Smiley told the court that being in the Marines came naturally to him because its values lined up with how he was raised. He joined in 2009. But now he plans to move to Wisconsin and be a firefighter and EMS. Smiley’s enlistment had ended but he was on “legal hold” pending the conclusion of his case. The jury was still deliberating his sentence as of 6 p.m.

Immediately after the verdict, Stacie Beveridge Beals, the recruit’s mother, said she was not ready to comment.

Beals died during the Crucible on June 4, 2021, the final challenge recruits must meet before earning the title of U.S. Marine. It’s a 54-hour event that tests physical stamina, mental toughness and the ability to think critically while under stress including hunger, sleep deprivation and exhaustion.

The prosecution’s medical experts argued that heat stroke played a role in his death and that Smiley pushed the recruits too hard, but the defense called medical witnesses that said Beals had an existing heart condition that contributed to his death.

During closing arguments, Colby Vokey, one of Smiley’s attorneys, asked the jurors to imagine what it felt like for Smiley, a drill instructor, to be charged with a crime. “How scary is that?”

Vokey said the prosecution cherry-picked the evidence. And he told the jury to send a message “we expect drill instructors to train Marines to do the right things but we won’t make one a scapegoat because of a tragic event.”

“If the conditions of the Crucible are hot or difficult, that doesn’t fall on Staff Sgt. Smiley,” Vokey said.

Lt. Col. Ian Germain, of the prosecution, argued that Smiley didn’t do his job in keeping account of the recruits under his watch and was out to “break” them in “my Crucible,” pushing them too far in hot conditions by ordering extra exercises.

Smiley, he said, failed to recognize clear signs of heat exhaustion in Beals and ignored a warning from a recruit who tried to inform him Beals was missing, with his negligence leading to his death, Germain said.

“Dalton Beals was entrusted to Steven Smiley who treated him like he was going to break him not make him and that’s why we are here,” said Germain, his voice rising.

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