Ex-drill instructor sentenced to 10 years

Melissa Nann Burke
Detroit News Washington Bureau

Marine Gunnery Sgt. Joseph A. Felix Jr. was sentenced Friday to 10 years in military prison for abusing three Muslim recruits during boot camp at Parris Island, including Raheel Siddiqui of Taylor, among other charges.

The 34-year-old Iraq veteran also received a dishonorable discharge, forfeiture of his salary and a reduction in his rank to E1, or private, which is the lowest, according to the U.S. Marines. He also loses his military benefits and housing allowances.

A military jury at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, on Thursday convicted Felix roughly 12 hours after receiving the case for deliberations.

Felix will go to the Camp Lejeune prison for now and will be moved when the headquarters of the Marine Corps corrections branch determines his next location, a Marine Corps spokesman said Friday.

Felix’s court-martial will be automatically reviewed by the Navy-Marine Corps Court of Criminal Appeals in Washington, D.C., because his sentence involves more than a year of imprisonment.

Felix could be sent to a military prison in Chesapeake, Virginia; Charleston, South Carolina; or elsewhere.

The eight-man jury — made up of three Marine officers and five senior enlisted members — found Felix guilty on three counts of recruit “maltreatment” — abusive, unwarranted or unjustified treatment or that which causes physical or mental suffering.

They also found Felix guilty of eight of nine counts of violating general orders by making physical contact with recruits, including striking and choking them; ordering excessive, unauthorized “incentive training” or punitive exercises; and leaving his post overseeing recruits to consume alcohol.

Felix was also convicted on one count of making false official statements and one count of drunk and disorderly conduct.

The jury acquitted Felix of allegations that he had obstructed justice by discouraging recruits in Siddiqui’s platoon from talking to investigators after Siddiqui’s death in March 2016, telling them, “what happens in the squad bay, stays in the squad bay.”

Felix was also not charged in Siddiqui’s death. The Siddiqui family indicated disappointment that the manner and details of their son’s death were not discussed at the court-martial.

“The sentence has further ignited the Siddiqui family’s quest to seek justice for Raheel Siddiqui,” family lawyer Shiraz Khan said in a statement. “Although we cannot comment on matters pending in court, we will allow our complaint to speak for itself.”

Siddiqui’s parents are suing the Marine Corps for $100 million, claiming their son was assaulted, hazed and discriminated against because of his Islamic faith, and that military officials were negligent in failing to protect him.

The government alleged that Felix zeroed in on three Muslim recruits because of their faith, referring to each as “terrorist” and stuffing two of them (not Siddiqui) into an industrial Speed Queen dryer in July 2015, among other alleged acts.

The jury concluded that Felix did not maltreat Siddiqui by allegedly calling him a “terrorist.” The jury, however, found Felix maltreated Siddiqui by ordering him to run repeatedly back and forth across the squad bay and striking him in the face.

Prosecutors also alleged Felix left his platoon after “lights out” on two occasions to drink whiskey with other drill instructors in the parking lot (dereliction of duty), and that Felix in 2015 lied to an investigator who was looking into the dryer incident (making false official statements).

At trial, Felix’s lawyers said the government’s witnesses, mostly former recruits, contradicted one another and exaggerated the alleged misconduct.

They argued Parris Island drill instructors call all recruits “terrorists,” and that Felix was actually trying to help Siddiqui by meeting with him one-on-one daily.

“What happened to Raheel Siddiqui at Parris Island was a dereliction of duty and a tragedy,” said Rep. Debbie Dingell, D-Dearborn, in a statement. “... I will continue working closely with the Marine Corps and the Siddiqui family to ensure justice is done and that we can prevent a tragedy like this from ever happening again.”

The court-martial is the first public prosecution by the Marines involving the case of Siddiqui, 20, who was in his first week of training when he died following an altercation with Felix on March 18, 2016.

Siddiqui had requested medical treatment for a sore throat, but Felix ordered him to run several sprints across the squad bay until Siddiqui collapsed. Felix slapped Siddiqui while he was down — to revive him, according to Felix’s attorneys — then Siddiqui got up and ran out of a door to the stairwell.

Siddiqui went over the stairwell railing, and his foot caught. He fell nearly 40 feet to the concrete below and later died, according to a report by Marine investigators.

The judge ruled the events following the slap couldn’t be discussed in court.

Siddiqui’s death was ruled a suicide, but his family says their son did not kill himself.

“Additionally, evidence presented at the trial reaffirms that the finding of suicide should be revisited,” Dingell said. “I will continue to work with all involved to have the initial findings revisited with additional facts that have become available so we can bring some measure of peace to the Siddiqui family.”

Felix joined the Marines in August 2002. He arrived at Parris Island in 2014 and served five cycles as a drill instructor, including his last with Siddiqui’s Platoon 3042, Kilo Company, 3rd Training Battalion, which was his first time serving as a senior drill instructor.

Felix was only in charge of the platoon a short time before his superiors replaced him following Siddiqui’s death, assigning him in a supportive job at Parris Island in which he no longer supervised recruits, according to the Marines.

His trial follows a three Marine Corps investigations last year that revealed systemic hazing and abuse of recruits within the 3rd Recruit Training Battalion at Parris Island.

The Marines plan to try the former commander of the 3rd Training Battalion at Parris Island on charges including failure to ensure Felix was not supervising recruits while he was under investigation for his role in the 2015 dryer incident.

Lt. Col. Joshua Kissoon’s court-martial is set to begin March 12 in Quantico, Virginia. He faces charges of failing to obey a lawful general order, making false official statements and conduct unbecoming an officer.

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