Military jury convicts Marine drill instructor who targeted Muslims

Special To The Washington Post

A military jury on Thursday convicted a former Marine Corps drill instructor of subjecting Muslim recruits to verbal and physical abuse.

After a seven-day trial and 12 hours of deliberation, the eight-member jury found Gunnery Sgt. Joseph Felix, 34, guilty of maltreatment in connection with allegations he targeted three Muslim men at the Marine Corps' storied recruit training facility in Parris Island, South Carolina.

One of those recruits, Raheel Siddiqui, died when he fell 40 feet onto a concrete stairwell. Prosecutors said Felix forced Siddiqui to run back and forth in the recruits' squad bay, slapping him in the face just before he sprinted from the room and jumped to his death. Two other Muslim recruits accused him 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.

Sentencing is scheduled for Friday. If Felix receives more than a year in prison or is given an other-than-honorable discharge from the military, his conviction will be automatically appealed.

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.

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."

Felix is a married father of four. He has served in the Marines since 2002.

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 already have faced some form of discipline. Now, only two await their fate: Felix's fellow drill instructor Sgt. Michael Eldridge and their former supervisor, Lt. Col. Joshua Kissoon.

Felix was "drunk on power, and sometimes Fireball whiskey," Norman told the jury during his closing statements. "He wasn't making Marines - 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," which is 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 Marine Corps' and a South Carolina medical examiner's ruling of suicide. Rather, they've alleged that 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.

Bridges argued that the order often is violated by drill instructors, who are trying to impart toughness and military values any way they can. He cited one recruit who said Felix had knocked his rifle into him while standing at attention, bloodying his ear.

"Let's be honest, that's a drill correction," Bridges said. "If you scare and surprise, maybe they won't be lazy next time."

The military prosecutor countered, saying Felix "had that down to a science."

"He was very good at scaring them," Norman said.

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 said he "jumped on that government gravy train" to save himself at Felix's expense.

"Sergeant Eldridge took the government for a ride, no doubt about that," Bridges told the member panel, a jury of Marines of equal or superior rank to Felix.

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."

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