Marine drill instructor’s homicide trial delayed due to new evidence

The trial of a Marine drill instructor charged with negligent homicide in a recruit’s death has been delayed by nearly two months to give lawyers more time to review new evidence, according to case documents.

The delay comes in part because a second autopsy performed on the Marine recruit had determined he died of heart problems instead of overheating, as an initial autopsy had found.

Pfc. Dalton Beals, 19, died at Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island, South Carolina, in June 2021 during “the Crucible,” the grueling, 54-hour culmination of boot camp where recruits become Marines.

A 2021 Marine Corps command investigation found that Beals’ death may have resulted from his senior drill instructor, Staff Sgt. Steven T. Smiley, pushing recruits too hard despite dangerous levels of heat.

Smiley was charged in November 2022 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.

On the charge sheets, which Marine Corps Times obtained via a public records request, portions of the charges’ specifications are redacted, meaning it is unclear exactly how the prosecution plans to mount its case.

The medical examiner who performed the second autopsy told Marine Corps Times he finds the negligent homicide charge “a travesty of justice.”

Beals’ mother, meanwhile, insists that Smiley bears responsibility for her son’s death.

Negligent homicide is defined by the manual for courts-martial as the killing of another person by “an absence of due care” for the safety of others. The maximum punishment for that charge under military law is confinement for three years, dishonorable discharge and forfeiture of all pay and allowances.

A command investigation report completed September 2021 determined that Beals’ death was “likely avoidable.”

The investigation found that recruits in Beals’ group were going through the Crucible during so-called black flag heat conditions, defined as a temperature of 90 degrees Fahrenheit and above.

Under black flag conditions, according to the command investigation report, “Essential outdoor physical activity” like the Crucible should “be conducted at a level commensurate with personnel acclimatization,” with leaders keeping a close eye on recruits.

Beals had shown signs of overheating, according to the investigation report. He got separated from his group and, for approximately one hour, went unaccounted for. He was later found dead in the woods.

Following Beals’ death, company leaders determined that the young man had earned the title of Marine.

The investigation report reviewed by Marine Corps Times contains extensive redactions. But it appears to indicate a drill instructor ordered the recruits to perform “excessive,” unauthorized physical activity like squats or jumping jacks during the Crucible. And it contends that the drill instructor failed to monitor his recruits’ health amid the oppressive heat.

The report also says that Smiley “did not have the maturity, temperament, and leadership skills necessary to be an effective senior drill instructor.”

Smiley’s “perceived indifference to the well-being of his recruits demonstrated prior to the Crucible” could have deterred recruits from seeking medical help for Beals, the report speculates.

The report called for punitive or administrative action to be taken against Smiley and two commanders of his training company.

But Smiley’s defense team argued in comments submitted for a preliminary hearing that the senior drill instructor “took immediate action” once he was informed that Beals was missing.

Dr. Gerald Feigin, the medical examiner who conducted the second autopsy, reached out to the defense team on March 24 via email, according to a copy of that email in the defense response, to emphasize that he believed Beals died from a severe, unpreventable cardiac issue.

“I find it reprehensible that anyone is charged with a crime in this case,” he wrote.

Conflicting autopsies

Few details on the Beals’ first autopsy — conducted sometime between Beals’ death on June 4 and the second autopsy on June 13, 2021 — are publicly available.

The autopsy was conducted by the Beaufort County Coroner’s Office in South Carolina, according to the second autopsy report, obtained by Marine Corps Times. An employee with that coroner’s office told Marine Corps Times the office can’t comment on or publicly release autopsy reports.

The office “is responsible for investigating all suspicious, violent, sudden and unexpected deaths which occur in the Beaufort County,” where Parris Island, South Carolina, is located, according to the office’s website.

The command investigation report does note the main finding of that first autopsy: that Beals died of hyperthermia, or overheating.

Stacie Beals, Dalton Beals’ mother, told Marine Corps Times that she arranged the second autopsy with the New-Jersey-based Feigin, who conducted it pro bono. At that time, she said, no one had even told her the circumstances of her son’s death.

Feigin told Marine Corps Times on Thursday it was quickly obvious to him that Dalton Beals had multiple areas of scarring in his heart, visible both with the naked eye and through a microscope. He said it was clear the pathologist who conducted the first autopsy had examined less than half of the heart.

“I can’t answer for that other pathologist other than it was an incomplete job,” said Feigin, who said he has worked as a medical examiner since the 1980s and is a retired Army colonel. “It was not done well. And I’m being real, real polite about it.”

Feigin’s autopsy, completed June 13, 2021, determined the cause of death was “Cardiac Arrhythmia due to multiple myocardial scars, cardiac interstitial fibrosis and mild-moderate irregular cardiac hypertrophy.”

Genetic testing commissioned by Feigin turned up two gene variants “of uncertain significance” that preliminary scientific evidence suggests could be linked to heart issues, according to the report on that testing.

“Because there’s so much scarring, the electrical conductivity can’t work through the heart muscles, and they just die suddenly,” Feigin said. “You can’t predict it, nor can you prevent it.”

It’s an issue he estimated he sees at least 10 times a year out of the few hundred autopsies he conducts.

Asked if it was a coincidence that Beals died during extremely strenuous activity in hot weather, Feigin said it was.

New evidence

Smiley’s three-week trial before a general court-martial tentatively had been scheduled to start April 24, according to Marine spokesman Maj. Philip Kulczewski.

But on March 24, the prosecution filed a motion, obtained by Marine Corps Times, asking the judge to delay the trial because of a Naval Safety Center investigation into Beals’ death.

The Naval Safety Center informed the prosecution of the investigation’s existence on Feb. 1 and noted that it contained privileged information, as recounted in the prosecution’s motion.

The military judge, Marine Col. Adam Workman, received the unredacted safety investigation report earlier in March, according to the prosecution’s motion.

The prosecutors requested the additional time to allow for discovery — the process of sharing the potential evidence and working through the legal issues it might raise.

Naval Safety Center investigations typically are kept privileged, according to the center’s own guidance. The secrecy is supposed to encourage witnesses and investigators to speak candidly about safety issues that could be prevented in the future.

Even if the “taint team” of government lawyers tasked with reviewing the safety investigation determines it contains relevant evidence, and even if the judge agrees, it would be up to the Navy secretary to waive the privilege, according to an advisory document for Marine lawyers. As of 2018, according to that document, the Navy secretary had never waived the safety privilege for a criminal prosecution.

In some instances, the existence of privileged safety investigations has “stalled or halted the criminal prosecution of military cases,” according to the advisory document.

The defense lawyers, writing in a response to the prosecution’s motion, agreed that the trial should be delayed, or “continued,” in legal parlance, in part because of the safety investigation. But they argued there was another reason the judge should push back the trial date: the second autopsy.

The defense team said in its response to the prosecution’s motion that it needed more time to prepare a case because of the new evidence, which it characterized as favorable.

On April 6, Workman ordered the trial’s start date to be delayed by eight weeks, to June 19, according to Kulczewski, who noted that this date could still change.

Stacie Beals told Marine Corps Times on April 12 that her son had never experienced cardiac issues and indeed had played high-intensity contact sports throughout high school.

Stacie Beals, a nurse, said she didn’t think the findings of the second autopsy were particularly relevant.

“Heat stroke can cause cardiac arrhythmia,” she said.

Marine Pfc. Dalton Beals and his family. (Photo courtesy of Stacie Beals)
Marine Pfc. Dalton Beals and his family. (Photo courtesy of Stacie Beals)

In a March interview, she described her son to Marine Corps Times as a good kid, who liked playing board games with his sisters and was so gentle that he once scooped a cricket out of their garage rather than letting her crush it.

Other recruits, quoted in the command investigation, described him as a “gentle giant” and a good recruit.

“I have no doubt that if it wasn’t for Steven Smiley, my son would be here today,” Stacie Beals said on April 12.

Melody Smiley, the mother of Steven T. Smiley, told Marine Corps Times on Wednesday that she sympathizes with Dalton Beals’ family but believes that her son has been made a scapegoat for a tragedy.

“He’s not this big, scary drill instructor,” Melody Smiley said. “He’s a family man.”

Marine Corps Times attempted to route a request for comment to the prosecution through Kulczewski but did not receive comment.

Capt. Keagan Riley, a lawyer for Smiley, declined to comment.