CAMP LEJEUNE, N.C. — An eight-member Marine Corps jury found Gunnery Sgt. Joseph Felix guilty Thursday on a charge he mistreated recruit Raheel Siddiqui of Taylor, who died in a three-story fall in a stairwell at the training base at Parris Island, S.C., last year after Felix slapped him.
After deliberating for a day, the jury panel — which included eight male Marines senior to Felix — returned its verdicts in the case against the former drill instructor, who was accused of punching, kicking and choking recruits, as well as specific charges of failing to obey orders and obstruction of justice.
Felix was also specifically accused of targeting three Muslim recruits — including Siddiqui — calling them “terrorists” and ordering the two others into industrial dryers the summer before Siddiqui’s death.
Returning to the courtroom at about 8:15 p.m., the jury returned a guilty verdict against Felix for slapping Siddiqui and forcing him to run laps in the barracks even though he had asked for medical attention for a sore, bleeding throat just before his death.
The jury, while finding Felix guilty of maltreating Siddiqui and both of the other Muslim recruits, did not find Felix guilty for referring to Siddiqui as a “terrorist,” with witnesses at the trial suggesting he may have been joking. Felix, however, was found guilty of ordering another Muslim recruit, Lance Cpl. Ameer Bourmeche, to do exercises in the shower room after lights out and then climb into an industrial dryer, which was turned on briefly.
Felix was found guilty of eight counts of violating training orders regarding multiple recruits over two years, as well as charges of making false official statements and being drunk and disorderly. He was found not guilty of an obstruction of justice charge related to an accusation that he told recruits to hide information about Siddiqui’s death.
Sentencing is expected to occur Friday morning at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina, where the trial was held. Taking together all the charges, Felix could face years of confinement, loss of pay and rank, and could be expelled from the Marine Corps.
Neither the prosecution nor the defense spoke immediately after the verdicts. The lawyer for Siddiqui’s family, Shiraz Khan of Southfield, did not immediately return a call for comment on the verdict either.
The verdict was a clear victory for the prosecution, however, which made its closing arguments on Wednesday. Lt. Col. John Norman described Felix as “drunk on power” during his time as a drill instructor, saying he purposely targeted Muslim recruits but violated orders by his treatment of many others as well, including allegations he forced recruits to choke other recruits and hit recruits in the face.
“He wasn’t making Marines, he was breaking Marines,” Norman said during his closing arguments. During the prosecution’s case, dozens of former recruits were called to testify.
Throughout the trial, however, Felix’s lawyers insisted that the accusations against him were fabricated or outlandish and that any actions he took were intended to better train his recruits. Felix’s lawyers also said the slap of Siddiqui was intended to revive him when the drill instructor believed he had passed out after running sprints in the barracks and that rules against such behavior were too rigid to be useful.
“In reality, they have thrown everything at the wall to see what runs down and what sticks,” Felix’s chief lawyer, Lt. Cmdr. Clay Bridges, told the jury in closing arguments, describing the recruits’ claims as inconsistent. As for Bourmeche’s allegations, he said they should have been leveled against another drill instructor — Sgt. Michael Eldridge — who testified against Felix and will receive a lesser court-martial in return.
With sentencing to come, the jury’s verdicts mark an important milestone in a case that made national headlines and rocked the Marines’ iconic training base at Parris Island, leading to a zero-tolerance policy regarding hazing and abuse of recruits.
Central to that was the death of Siddiqui, a 20-year-old former Truman High School valedictorian who died on March 18. 2016, less than two weeks after entering boot camp and less than five full days after joining Felix’s training platoon.
Siddiqui died after an early-morning fall from an exterior stairwell that a local coroner and the Marines have concluded was a suicide, a finding that his family has rejected, telling the Free Press this summer that he was prepared for the hardships of boot camp, for which he trained for months, and would never take his life as a faithful Muslim.
The family has sued the Marines Corps in a $100-million negligence suit.
According to investigators, Siddiqui — who had no history of mental illness or suicide threats — threatened suicide several days before his death and then recanted, saying he only wanted to try to get out of the Marines because he was tired of being hit. His suggestion that he was abused was never forwarded to officials for follow-up.
Returned to his platoon then as a low risk of harming himself, Siddiqui continued training. Other drill instructors said Felix told them to ease the recruit back to full speed. But on the morning of March 18, Siddiqui complained of a sore, bleeding throat and asked to be sent for medical attention.
Instead, Felix ordered him to run back and forth in the barracks for not calling out or “sounding off.” Siddiqui collapsed after several laps, clutching his throat. It was then that Felix slapped him at least once, with numerous witnesses saying they could hear it across the barracks.
Witnesses said Siddiqui then got up and ran out the exterior door. The earlier investigation found that Siddiqui leaped over a stairwell railing, his foot catching on it. He fell three stories and later died of his injuries.
Neither the manner nor details of Siddiqui’s death were mentioned at trial because Felix was not directly charged with it — despite that earlier investigation’s conclusion that Felix’s actions directly led to Siddiqui’s death. The reports of Siddiqui’s earlier suicidal threat was also not mentioned at trial.
Contact Todd Spangler: 703-854-8947 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @tsspangler.