November 10, 2017 at 3:21 PM
CAMP LEJEUNE, N.C. — A military jury sentenced a former Marine drill instructor to 10 years in prison and a dishonorable discharge from the service Friday for subjecting Muslim recruits to verbal and physical abuse, including one young man who committed suicide after an especially troubling encounter.
The eight-member jury issued its sentence a day after it found Gunnery Sgt. Joseph Felix guilty of maltreatment for terrorizing three Muslim men at the Marines’ storied boot camp in Parris Island, S.C. Felix also will have his rank reduced to private.
Prosecutors had asked for a seven-year prison term. Felix faced a maximum possible sentence of more than 21 years. It’s not immediately clear why the jury elected to exceed what the prosecution had requested.
The military justice system requires automatic appeals for all prison sentences consisting of a year or more and all dishonorable discharges. Felix will be held at Camp Lejeune’s brig until his expected transfer to a larger prison.
One of Felix’s victims, 20-year-old Raheel Siddiqui, died at Parris Island last year when he fell 40 feet onto a concrete stairwell. Prosecutors said Felix forced Siddiqui to run back and forth in the recruits’ squad bay and then slapped him in the face just before the recruit suddenly sprinted from the room and jumped to his death. Two other Muslim recruits accused Felix of putting them in an industrial clothes dryer and, in one instance, turning it on.
In all, Felix was convicted of three counts of maltreatment, eight of nine counts of violating general orders, drunk and disorderly conduct and making false statements. He was acquitted of obstruction of justice.
Felix is a married father of four. He has served in the Marines since 2002.
The jury’s verdict marks the culmination of two years of investigations and courts-martial centered on recruit abuse at Parris Island dating to 2015. The Naval Criminal Investigative Service has investigated 20 Marine drill instructors, officers and staff members amid allegations of hazing, assault and discriminating against Muslim recruits dating to 2015. Thirteen Marines have faced some form of discipline. Two others await their fate: Felix’s fellow drill instructor Sgt. Michael Eldridge and their former supervisor, Lt. Col. Joshua Kissoon.
Felix, said Lt. Col. John Norman, the prosecutor, “picked out Muslim recruits for special abuse because of their Muslim faith. He degraded their religion and put them in industrial appliances.” During his closing arguments, Norman described Felix as “drunk on power, and sometimes Fireball whisky.”
“He wasn’t making Marines,” Norman added. “He was breaking Marines.”
The first two Muslim recruits targeted by Felix were Ameer Bourmeche and Rekan Hawez. Both testified during his court-martial that Felix and Eldridge put them into an industrial clothes dryer.
Numerous witnesses told the court they heard Felix call the Muslim recruits “terrorist” and “ISIS,” another name for the Islamic State. A recruit from Siddiqui’s platoon, Lance Cpl. Shane McDevitt, told the court that Felix called Siddiqui a terrorist at least 10 times.
Felix’s attorney, Navy Lt. Cmdr. Daniel Bridges, said that his client did not know the three recruits were Muslim and that when he slapped Siddiqui, he was trying to give the struggling recruit medical care. Siddiqui complained of respiratory trouble in the moments before his death.
Siddiqui’s family has filed a $100 million wrongful death lawsuit against the Marine Corps and the U.S. government, disputing the Marines’ and a South Carolina medical examiner’s ruling of suicide. The family says Siddiqui was driven to his death by his drill instructors.
Felix’s defense team presented only two witnesses during the trial: a mechanical engineer specializing in clothes dryers and a forensic pathologist. Dozens of witnesses, including other drill instructors who worked with Felix and at least 20 former recruits who trained under him, offered testimony for the prosecution.
A central issue for the jury was determining the point at which a drill instructor’s conduct crosses the line from discipline to abuse. The Marines articulate that boundary in a regulations manual that allows drill instructors to make certain forms of physical contact with recruits but outlaws others, such as punching, kicking and slapping.
Another key component of the trial was Eldridge’s testimony. Eldridge, who was a party to some of the abuse, accepted an immunity deal that compelled him to testify against his former colleague. He will plead no contest and spend 60 days in a military jail, Bridges said.
Bridges argued that Eldridge was responsible for putting one recruit in a clothes dryer and turning it on. But the sergeant “jumped on that government gravy train” to save himself at Felix’s expense, Bridges said.
In his rebuttal, Norman explained why the prosecution relied on Eldridge’s testimony.
“It takes criminals to catch criminals,” he said. “The reason Sergeant Eldridge knew so much about what [Felix] did was because he was standing right there with him.”