Deliberations begin in Marine drill instructor trial

Melissa Nann Burke
Detroit News Washington Bureau

Camp Lejeune, N.C. — Jury deliberations will begin Thursday in the trial of the former drill instructor for Marine recruit Raheel Siddiqui of Taylor, who fell to his death at the Parris Island boot camp last year after an altercation with the accused.

In closing arguments Wednesday, prosecutors said Gunnery Sgt. Joseph A. Felix Jr. physically and verbally abused his recruits and ordered “massive” amounts of unauthorized “incentive training,” or punitive exercises, in the platoons he oversaw at the training depot in South Carolina.

Lt. Col. John P. Norman said the case is about how Felix, using fear and intimidation, was “drunk on power, sometimes Fireball Whisky, and how he used that power to abuse his recruits again and again.”

“He wasn’t making Marines. He was breaking them,” Norman said.

He said Felix singled out three Muslim recruits, including Siddiqui, for “special abuse” because of their faith, which he degraded.

Felix’s court-martial, which began last week, is the first public prosecution by the Marines involving the case of Siddiqui, who was 20 years old and less than two weeks into boot camp in March 2016 when he died.

Felix is not alleged to have caused Siddiqui’s death. The charges against him include three counts of cruelty and maltreatment, eight counts of failing to obey orders, and one count each of making false official statements, drunken and disorderly conduct, and obstruction of justice.

He has pleaded not guilty and did not take the stand during the trial.

Felix’s lead defense lawyer, Navy Lt. Cmdr. Daniel “Clay” Bridges, stressed in his closing that the government’s witnesses – mostly former recruits – contradicted one another and that their stories are “unrealistic,” “outlandish” or “blown out of proportion.”

“The government’s case is the definition of reasonable doubt,” Bridges said of the prosecution.

“It doesn’t matter how certain a government lawyer is when he stands up here and says he’s guilty. It doesn’t make his evidence interlock and fit.”

He said another drill instructor who testified against Felix for some of the alleged misconduct with recruits “saved himself” after making a plea deal with the prosecution.

Bridges also said, “There’s no evidence that recruit Siddiqui is Muslim. None.”

Norman explained the variations among the recruits’ stories as “what makes them so believable.”

“They’re recruits. There’s chaos. They’re afraid. They’re especially afraid of him,” he said, gesturing to Felix at the defense table.

Norman accused Felix of violating orders for drill instructors that they not have physical contact with recruits and not “maltreat” them – that is, make statements or take actions that are abusive or otherwise unwarranted or unjustified.

Witnesses have testified that Felix punched, kicked, slapped and choked recruits, or ordered recruits to choke one another.

Felix faces charges for maltreating Siddiqui for referring to him as a “terrorist,” and for ordering him to run back and forth across the squad bay after he had requested medical treatment for a hoarse and painfully sore throat.

Siddiqui collapsed while running, and Felix allegedly slapped him to try to revive him.

But Norman highlighted testimony that Siddiqui was conscious – that he turned away from the slap, putting his hand to his face, crying.

“Why would you slap a conscious person?” the prosecutor said. “Siddiqui gets up and runs away.”

This was not said in court, but Siddiqui ran out a side door leading to a stairwell and went over the railing, according to a report by Marine investigators. His foot caught the railing, and he seemed tumbled over, falling more than 38 feet to the concrete below.

Siddiqui was later pronounced dead. The death was declared a suicide.

Bridges said that, when Siddiqui collapsed, Felix rendered aid, shouting at him and performing a “sternum rub” to rouse him – but got no response.

“At that point, as the government’s own witness said, you’re not in the (DI manual) anymore. At that point, instincts are going to kick in,” Bridges said, then demonstrating the sound of a slap with a clap.

“We have to use common sense.”

The government alleges that after Siddiqui’s death, Felix told his platoon that “what happens in the squad bay, stays in the squad bay,” which some recruits interpreted as an order not to talk to Navy investigators.

Bridges challenged this, saying Felix never told the recruits to lie.

He also pushed back against the allegations that Felix abused two Muslim recruits in different platoons by putting them in an industrial Speed Queen dryer in July 2015.

He cited an expert witness, Dr. Karen L. Kelly of Eastern Carolina University Brody School of Medicine, who testified Wednesday.

Kelly, a forensic pathologist, said she would expect an individual to have third- or fourth-degree burns in a matter of seconds if the dryer was turned on tumble with then-recruit Lance Cpl. Ameer Bourmeche inside. He didn’t have those injuries, according to testimony.

“Focus on science,” Bridges said. “Focus on reality.”

Another drill instructor, Sgt. Michael K. Eldridge, testified that Felix ordered Bourmeche into the dryer, but Bourmeche testified it was Eldridge, Bridges said.

“He took the government for a ride,” Bridges said of Eldridge, noting his deal with prosecutors calls for two months imprisonment and a reduction in rank.

Norman said the episodes involving placing a recruit in a clothes dryer, turning it on three times, would seem “absurd if not true.”

“He took a human being and put them in a dryer,” Norman said.

In another instance, Felix allegedly ordered another recruit to take a knife and simulate chopping off Bourmeche’s head with it while yelling “Allahu Akbar.”

Bridges said drill instructors commonly referred to all recruits as “terrorists.”

Felix could face time in military prison, financial penalties, a reduction in rank or a dishonorable discharge.