On Feb. 11, 2023, a federal hearing officer overturned a decision by officials at Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island in South Carolina to deny legal records tied to a recruit there in 2021. Parris Island has been the site of Marine Corps recruit training since Nov. 1, 1915. Today, approximately 19,000 recruits arrive at Parris Island annually for the chance to become Marines. US Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. Maximiliano Bavastro.
In a stinging defeat for the US Marine Corps, the brass must provide the public with the charge sheets for a drill instructor accused of killing a Parris Island recruit in 2021.
In a ruling handed down Saturday, Feb. 11, an internal Department of the Navy court ordered the Corps to provide Coffee or Die with legal paperwork tied to Staff Sgt. Steven T. Smiley, the DI charged with the negligent homicide of 19-year-old Pfc. Dalton Beals at Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island in South Carolina.
Investigators say the recruit overheated and died on a torrid black flag day on June 4, 2021, during boot camp’s final Crucible event. Marine Brig. Gen. Walker Field charged Smiley three months ago with negligent homicide, obstruction of justice, maltreatment of subordinates, and four specifications of failing to obey a lawful order — allegations the ex-DI strongly denies.
But when Coffee or Die asked for the charge sheets laying out in writing specifically why the Corps believes Smiley mistreated recruits, the brass suddenly became secretive. They wouldn’t share the records, instead telling Coffee or Die to file a request for the documents under the Freedom of Information Act.
On Jan. 10, Parris Island officials denied that written request, too. They contended that releasing Smiley’s charge sheets would compromise his criminal probe, even though he’d been arraigned two months earlier.
Recruits in Papa Company, 4th Recruit Training Battalion, salute the national colors during an emblem ceremony June 24, 2017, on Parris Island, South Carolina. US Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Vanessa Austin.
Parris Island leaders didn’t find a sympathetic ear at the Washington Navy Yard civil court that hears FOIA appeals.
In his ruling, hearing officer Sean D. Schrock called the Marines’ denial “inappropriate” because it failed to show “a cognizable harm in release of the subject’s charge sheet” while Smiley undergoes court-martial. He reminded the Marines that the law won't let them “withhold all information because that information was compiled for law enforcement purposes, including a pending court-martial.”
Marine officials at Parris Island did not immediately respond to a Coffee or Die request for comment on Monday. It remains unclear if the Corps will appeal the setback.
Part of an ongoing effort to shine a light on the often secretive prosecutions of service members nationwide, Coffee or Die awaits rulings in three similar cases linked to Marines standing trial in South Carolina, North Carolina, and Arizona.
Read Next: Tribunal: Corps Wrongly Convicted Marine Behind Bars for 6 Years
Carl Prine is a former senior editor at Coffee or Die Magazine. He has worked at Navy Times, The San Diego Union-Tribune, and Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. He served in the Marine Corps and the Pennsylvania Army National Guard. His awards include the Joseph Galloway Award for Distinguished Reporting on the military, a first prize from Investigative Reporters & Editors, and the Combat Infantryman Badge.
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