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Marine general chastised, sergeant's conviction overturned in hazing case

Marine general chastised, sergeant's conviction overturned in hazing case
Maj. Gen. Eric M. Smith, commander of 1st Marine Division, speaks during a weapons demonstration at Camp Pendleton on Jan. 16. (U.S. Marine Corps)

A military court has reprimanded a Marine two-star general at Camp Pendleton for unlawfully meddling in a court-martial case against a noncommissioned officer accused of abusing his troops.

In a ruling last week, the U.S. Navy-Marine Corps Court of Criminal Appeals in Washington overturned the court-martial conviction of Sgt. Jaime Ortiz. The court found that Maj. Gen. Eric M. Smith went too far in his crackdown against hazing throughout the 1st Marine Division.

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Prosecutors had alleged that Ortiz conspired with fellow noncommissioned officers to haze five junior Marines by forcing them to get special haircuts and ordering them to perform excessive physical exercises. Ortiz was also accused of punching two of them in the chest, according to court filings.

The Marines have tried to eradicate hazing for five years. In 2013, former Marine commandant Gen. James Amos issued an anti-hazing order that was designed to track and stamp out abuse throughout the Corps.

Smith took command of 1st Marine Division on June 22. Echoing Amos, one of his first acts was issuing his "Commanding General's Policy Statement on Hazing." It called on his commanders to involuntarily discharge anyone found to have abused lower ranking troops.

On July 11 and 12, Smith sent a series of emails to commanders and others, urging them to take immediate actions to curtail hazing.

Smith noted that he'd reviewed five hazing allegations during the week and called the abuse "the single biggest issue I have, and that word does not seem to be getting down to all hands."

Smith urged his commanders to take action against "a few salty" lance corporals "who think they are in charge."

Ortiz was arrested on July 13 in one of those cases and

Smith convened a court-martial against him on Aug. 15. Ortiz's attorneys immediately filed a motion to quash the case, arguing that the general had strayed from unbiased justice to become a "direct accuser."

Under military law, generals are barred from convening trials against Marines if they have a direct, personal stake in the case.

The trial judge agreed with the defense attorneys and moved to vacate Ortiz's case without prejudice, which means that military prosecutors can try him again.

The judge also disqualified Smith from any future role in Ortiz's case, meaning another general in a different command would have to start the entire process over if the Marine Corps still wanted prosecute the sergeant.

Prosecutors appealed the decision on Nov. 7.

Smith declined to be interviewed, but his spokesman said his division would continue to go after Marines alleged to have abused their troops.

Military prosecutors have not determined whether they will continue to pursue the case against Ortiz.

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Prine writes for the San Diego Union-Tribune.

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