Editor’s note: According to attorney Colby Vokey (USMC-ret.), as part of a post-trial agreement, the Commanding General at Marine Corps Recruit Depot (MCRD) Parris Island took Staff Sergeant Steven Smiley to a summary court-martial in December 2023 for the sole charge he was convicted for at his July 2023 general court-martial. A general court-martial is the military’s version of a felony, which has serious collateral consequences. A summary court-martial, however, does not count as a criminal conviction (per U.S. Supreme Court caselaw). As a result, Smiley will now be leaving the Marine Corps with no criminal conviction and at the rank of staff sergeant.
On July 28, 2023, Marine Staff Sergeant Steven Smiley was found to be not guilty of all charges including negligent homicide and obstruction of justice. It was a massive victory for Smiley, his family, and his legal team but the celebrations were short-lived as he was found guilty of name-calling.
Smiley, now a former drill instructor, was alleged to have called his recruits “war pigs”, which happens to be their company mascot. According to some accounts he also called them, “sweet bacon” – a term that can be described as humorous but hardly offensive to someone attempting to complete the toughest basic training in the world.
After a two-week trial which took place between July 17-28, the final outcome was that Smiley is a felon for name calling due to that lesser charge being lumped in with the more serious charges. He was reduced in rank to E-5 (Sergeant) as a result.
Smiley was represented by Marine Major Brentt McGee, Marine Captain Keagan Riley and retired Marine LtCol Colby Vokey.
Smiley faced multiple charges stemming from alleged violations of the Uniformed Code of Military Justice (UCMJ) including Article 134, negligent homicide; Article 131b, obstruction of justice; Article 93, cruelty, oppression, or maltreatment of subordinates; and four specifications of Article 92, failure to obey an order or regulation.
During the Article 32 Hearing, a fact-finding process, the Preliminary Hearing Officer (PHO) recommended that several charges should be withdrawn and dismissed due to a lack of evidence by the government, including:
- Charge I: Specification 3: Violation of Article 92 of the UCMJ (Violation of Lawful General Order) in that the accused wrongfully implied that the recruits owed the accused loyalty.
- Additional Charge I, Violation of Article 119 of the UCMJ and the sole Specification: Involuntary Manslaughter.
- Charge III: Violation of Article 131b of UCMJ its sole specification (Obstruction of Justice).
However, the convening authority, Marine Brig. Gen. Walker Field, commanding general of Parris Island, moved all charges to a court martial anyway.
The original incident in question occurred on June 4, 2021, when recruit Dalton Beals with Platoon 2040 of 2nd Marine Recruit Training Battalion died on day two of “The Crucible” – the culminating exercise of Marine Corps recruit training. This was the fourth recruit death within two years at Parris Island, South Carolina, and the reaction from senior leaders was that an example had to be made of someone.
The initial autopsy report determined that Beals’ cause of death was hyperthermia, commonly known as heat stroke. The original accusations were that Smiley was pushing the recruits too hard in the 90+ degree heat and “black flag” conditions. However, it was made known at the court martial that the black flag conditions only occurred during a single 30-minute window that day, with the majority of the day being a milder “red” or “green” flag.
During the trial at Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island, South Carolina, numerous young Marines who were former recruits under Smiley were called as witnesses. Their accounts differed wildly on a variety of topics such as how long Beals was missing, how he appeared, and what they perceived during that portion of training.
Early reports also indicated that Smiley ignored warning signs that Beals was at risk, but according to witness accounts, when Smiley asked Beals if he was okay, the recruit stated he was “tired, but fine.” When Smiley checked on him, witnesses confirmed that Beals was not swaying or slurring his words, so there was nothing unusual for Smiley to observe.
The Crucible is designed to be tiring. All of the recruits that day – including Beals – were sweating and doing their best to stay hydrated. Had one of the recruits told Smiley that Beals had been unwell earlier, it could have been helpful to Smiley’s assessment, but none of them spoke up.
Numerous recruits testified during trial that Smiley made sure they were drinking water, and at one point he even passed around a bottle of electrolyte-filled Propel water. Corporal Isaac Brown, a recruit who was one of the last ones to see Beals alive stated that his friend looked “just like everyone else” when Smiley saw him.
Despite accountability being taken at each event of the Crucible, there are periods where the recruits must maintain their own accountability using the buddy system. Before he went missing, Beals repeatedly asked his fellow recruits to accompany him but none of them would go with him. He presumably decided to slip away on his own – against regulations which require a buddy at all times – and was not seen again until it was too late.
After the command’s early reports painted Smiley as cruel and indifferent to his recruits, Beals’ own mother requested the second autopsy because his mother did not feel that the government was telling her about the circumstances involved in her son’s death.
Nearly two years later, we now know that the deceased recruit, Beals, had a preexisting heart condition that was seemingly overlooked prior to boot camp. Beals’ mother testified that she was so upset upon learning the results of the second autopsy that she deleted the email with the results. She would later have to request a second copy when the government requested to see the results.
Dr. Gerald Feigin, a retired National Guard Colonel and the medical examiner who conducted the second autopsy, has been in medical practice for over 40-years and has conducted over 25,000 autopsies. He stated that over 2/3 of Beals’ heart was never examined during the original autopsy, while adding that he “can’t stress enough how bad and incomplete the first autopsy was.”
Dr. Feigin added that the scarring on Beals’ heart was visible both with the naked eye and through a microscope. He said, “his heart was so bad Beals could have died at any time, it just happened to be while on the Crucible.”
When the medical chief for United States Military Entrance Processing Command (USMEPCOM) was asked why Beals’ heart condition was not caught by MEPS, the answer was simple: MEPS relies on applicants for the military to disclose their medical history. As it relates to EKGs, MEPS does not perform them because their physicians are not cardiologists, and they are not warranted because “false positives are very high among young people, while the number of positive tests for heart issues are very low.”
That same medical witness concluded by saying that nothing in Beals’ medical record at the time indicated any sort of heart issue because he didn’t disclose his previous history with cramps and other heat injuries that Beals’ mother would later testify to.
Dr. Pryah Banerjee, another medical expert witness, concurred with Dr. Feigin’s findings. The jury agreed with their more experienced opinions compared to the government’s medical experts, including forensic investigator U.S. Navy Commander Bryan Platt, who had only performed approximately 450 autopsies in his career. Platt admitted on the stand that he never reviewed the heart samples provided by Dr. Feigin, forming his opinion solely on the original autopsy and NCIS reports.
When asked why the other heat casualties from the Crucible did not die if the conditions were so severe, Commander Platt didn’t have an answer.
Dr. Banerjee also confirmed that the amount of water missing from Beals’ canteen matched the amount found in his stomach, proving that he had been hydrating. She also confirmed that the scarring found on Beals’ heart would take months or years to form and that it wasn’t possible to attribute that amount of scarring to a period such as the Crucible.
During the trial, Vokey and team were able to provide enough evidence and witness testimony to counter the government trial counsel’s attempts to paint Smiley as the one at fault for Beals’ tragic death.
The attempts of the lead prosecutor, LtCol. Ian Germain, to convince the jury members that Smiley was negligent and responsible for Beals’ death were never enough to move past reasonable doubt, and in many cases his own witnesses helped the defense’s case because of their conflicting accounts and lack of credibility.
UAP’s Board of Directors accepted Smiley’s request for support on May 11, 2023, with the intent to ensure that Smiley had the ability to fund his legal defense in a criminal court. As Steven Smiley transitions from the Marine Corps to civilian life as a first responder (Firefighter/EMS), your financial support is more critical than ever to ensure his legal bills are paid for. Please consider making a donation today.
TO DONATE IN SUPPORT OF SSGT STEVEN SMILEY