A military jury has found that a Marine Corps drill instructor was not guilty of negligent homicide and other charges in the death of a 19-year-old recruit during a grueling training exercise on Parris Island, S.C., in 2021.
The drill instructor, Staff Sgt. Steven Smiley, was referred last year to a general court-martial after the death of the recruit, Pfc. Dalton Beals of Pennsville, N.J., on June 4, 2021, at the Marines’ recruiting depot on Parris Island.
After several hours of deliberations on Friday, a jury of eight Marines found that Sergeant Smiley was not guilty of charges of negligent homicide; cruelty, oppression or maltreatment of subordinates; obstruction of justice; and other offenses, according to his lawyer, Colby C. Vokey.
But jurors found that Sergeant Smiley was guilty of one charge — violation of a general order that forbids drill instructors from calling recruits names, Mr. Vokey said. Sergeant Smiley had referred to recruits as “pigs,” “war pigs” and “sweet bacon” during training, Mr. Vokey said.
Sergeant Smiley was sentenced to a reduction of rank, downgrading him from staff sergeant to sergeant, Mr. Vokey said. He said that Sergeant Smiley, 35, planned to leave the military and become a firefighter in Wisconsin.
Mr. Vokey said that Sergeant Smiley was “a little disappointed that he’s going to have a felony conviction for giving his platoon nicknames, but otherwise he was relieved and very happy with the verdict.”
The Marines acknowledged the verdict on Monday but did not comment further.
According to an investigative report by the Marines, Private Beals died of hyperthermia — or abnormally high body temperature — during the Crucible, a 54-hour training exercise that included a series of physical endurance tests during which sleep and food were restricted.
The Marines consider the event a rite of passage into the corps.
Private Beals was found unconscious on the second day of the Crucible, about 90 minutes after completing an event in extreme, or “black flag,” conditions, when a heat index that measures temperature, humidity, the angle of the sun and other factors reaches 90 degrees or above.
After demonstrating signs of “heat injury,” the report said, Private Beals left his team’s patrol base alone “and was unaccounted for in excess of 60 minutes.”
The report called Private Beals’s death “likely avoidable” and said that Sergeant Smiley failed to take into account extreme weather conditions throughout the training event. Rather, the report said, he intensified training throughout both days.
According to the report, several recruits described Sergeant Smiley as a demanding drill instructor who was more comfortable with being a warrior than a mentor, and whose recruits did not feel comfortable going to him with medical problems or other concerns. “He just screams, ‘Go away,’” one recruit said, according to the report.
Sergeant Smiley’s perceived indifference to the well-being of recruits may have affected Private Beals’s willingness to seek medical attention when he was showing clear signs of heat injury, the report said.
Mr. Vokey said that during the two-week trial on Parris Island, he presented evidence from medical experts that Private Beals had a pre-existing heart condition that had contributed to his death.
Mr. Vokey said it was “shocking and sort of sickening” that prosecutors did not drop the charges against his client based on that evidence.
In court, Sergeant Smiley said that he had been a Marine for 14 years and had “tried to always do the right thing,” Mr. Vokey said, paraphrasing his client.
He said that Sergeant Smiley had also addressed the family of Private Beals, telling them: “I’m sorry for your loss and I can’t imagine what you’ve had to go through.”
In an interview on Monday, Stacie Beals, Private Beals’s mother, said that she had attended the trial and was shocked at the verdict.
“What I can take away from this, on a good note, is that Steven Smiley will no longer have any contact with recruits,” Ms. Beals said. “He won’t be responsible for them, and that’s a good thing.”
The investigative report by the Marines had described Private Beals as “one of the nicest people” and also as someone who was “quiet and never asked for any help.”
Ms. Beals said her son should have received immediate medical attention to either cool him down or restart his heart with an automated external defibrillator.
“Dalton should’ve gotten the help that he needed, and that’s the tragedy of all this,” Ms. Beals said. “My son never should have died alone.”
She said the end of the court-martial — two years after her son’s death — was like ripping a Band-Aid off an open wound.
“Everybody has to move on, but things won’t change for me and the family,” Ms. Beals said. “Nothing will bring Dalton back. He just deserved better. I know that.”