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Parris Island drill instructor found not guilty of Marine’s death during Crucible

The Parris Island drill instructor has been cleared of the most serious charges.
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Staff Sgt. Steven T. Smiley
Staff Sgt. Steven T. Smiley, shown here as a lance corporal, was found not guilty of negligent homicide in connection with the June 4, 2021 death of Pf. Dalton Beals, 19, at Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island, South Carolina. (Lance Cpl. Cory D. Polom/U.S. Marine Corps)

A drill instructor has been found not guilty of negligent homicide and most other charges for the June 4, 2021 death of Pfc. Dalton Beals at Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island, South Carolina, according to his attorney Colby Vokey.

Staff Sgt. Steven T. Smiley was found guilty on one specification of violation of the recruit training order for using nicknames to refer to recruits, such as “war pigs,” Vokey told Task & Purpose on Friday.

“To charge Staff Sgt. Smiley with the death of recruit Beals was ridiculous and overreaching at the greatest level, and the [jury] members saw through that and they came to the just decision on that issue,” Vokey said.

Smiley was Beals’ senior drill instructor when the 19-year-old Marine from Pennsville, New Jersey, died of overheating during the Crucible event of recruit training. Smiley was later charged with negligent homicide and other offenses in connection with Beals’ death.

A command investigation determined that Beals’ death was “likely avoidable” because Smiley had not properly supervised Beals and other recruits and also made them do extra exercises even though the temperatures at Parris Island that day reached Black Flag conditions, under which certain precautions have to be taken to protect recruits participating in the Crucible. For example, recruits must be given one-hour recovery periods; they are prohibited from sitting directly in the sun; and drill instructors must be vigilant to watch for any signs that recruits are showing signs of heat injuries.

On the day that Beals died, the temperature at Parris Island was in the 90s, and another recruit suffering from a heat injury had a core body temperature of 107.1 degrees, prompting corpsmen to put him in a polar bag to cool him down, the investigation found.

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After showing signs of a heat injury, Beals left his team’s patrol base alone and was missing for more than an hour, according to the investigation, which determined that Beals had died of hyperthermia, commonly known as overheating.

dalton beals, marine corps, parris island
Marine Pfc. Dalton Beals. (U.S. Marine Corps)

The Crucible is a demanding 54-hour event that marks the culmination of recruit training. Upon completing the event, Marines receive their Eagle, Globe, and Anchor insignia, signifying they have earned the title of U.S. Marine. Beals was posthumously promoted to private first class.

“The Drill instructors and Company staff made the determination that based on his resolve and dedication throughout recruit training and the Crucible, Pfc. Beals earned the title Marine,” Chief Warrant Officer Bobby Yarbrough, a Parris Island spokesman, told Task & Purpose in June 2021.

Smiley was charged in November with negligent homicide; obstruction of justice; cruelty, oppression, or maltreatment of subordinates; and four specifications of failure to obey an order or regulation in connection with Beal’s death.

But after those charges were referred to a general court-martial, the cause of Beals’ death came into question when a second autopsy arranged by Beals’ family determined that the Marine died from a heart condition, Marine Corps Times first reported.

Smiley’s trial began on July 17. Candace Luna, another Parris Island drill instructor, testified on July 18 that when she learned Beals was missing, she ran between training areas until she found him unresponsive and without a pulse, according to WJCL, an ABC-affiliated television station in Savannah, Georgia.

Luna also testified that once they were ordered to leave the area, Smiley told her, “There goes my (expletive) career,” WJCL reported.

Marine recruits conduct a hike during the Crucible on Marine Corps Recruit Depot, Parris Island, S.C., Dec. 3, 2016. (Lance Cpl. Sarah Stegall/U.S. Marine Corps)

The command investigation into Beals’ death found that although Smiley was technically qualified to serve as a senior drill instructor, he  “did not have the maturity, temperament, and leadership skills” for the job.

As a result, recruits were reluctant to tell Smiley about their medical issues and other problems, the investigation found.

“While his performance as a senior drill instructor appeared to improve somewhat throughout the cycle, during the Crucible he demonstrated little leadership over his team, and at times appeared disinterested in leading or supervising them,” the investigation found. “Although it is impossible to determine, his perceived indifference to the well-being of recruits demonstrated prior to the Crucible, could have impacted Recruit Beals or other recruit’s willingness to seek medical attention when Recruit Beals was clearly showing signs of a heat injury during the Crucible.”

Since being charged, Smiley has received help from the advocacy group United American Patriots, or UAP, which funds legal representation and other assistance to service members who the organization believes have been unjustly accused of crimes, said Nick Coffman, the group’s communications director. 

UAP has raised money to help pay for Smiley’s legal expenses, Coffman told Task & Purpose on Friday.

Smiley’s military pay was not enough to pay for an experienced attorney, and his wife was unable to take a job that she had accepted because the family’s move to Camp Lejeune was canceled after Smiley was charged, said Coffman, who is also a Task & Purpose contributor.

“The Marine Corps has a historical conviction rate of 98% when a Marine goes to court martial, so UAP feels it is our duty to help inform the public of the uphill battle Smiley is facing,” Coffman said. “As such, we believe — like every American — he should be presumed innocent until proven guilty and that he deserves a fair trial. If we don’t help defend him, who else will?”

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