Update: A Marine Corps drill instructor was sentenced Friday to 10 years in prison for choking, punching or otherwise tormenting recruits, especially three Muslims — one of whom ultimately killed himself by leaping down a stairwell.
RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — A Marine Corps jury on Friday is deciding whether a drill instructor should be sentenced to military prison time for choking, punching and otherwise tormenting recruits, especially Muslims, one of whom eventually hurled himself to his death down a stairwell.
The eight-man jury at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, also could sentence Gunnery Sgt. Joseph Felix to financial penalties and a dishonorable discharge.
The jury of five sergeants and three officers convicted the 34-year-old Iraq veteran Thursday of maltreatment of recruits at the Marine Corps’ Parris Island, South Carolina, boot camp. The jurors determined that Felix abused more than a dozen recruits, zeroing in on three Muslim-American military volunteers he insulted as “terrorist” for special mistreatment.
Felix also was convicted of drunk and disorderly conduct and making false official statements for lying to investigators about his actions.
More than three dozen criminal counts described Felix as a central figure in an abusive group of drill instructors at Parris Island.
After the March 2016 suicide of one of the three Muslim-American recruits Felix targeted, a hazing investigation led to charges against Felix, five other drill instructors and the training battalion’s commanding officer. Eleven others faced lesser, administrative discipline.
Felix had pleaded not guilty and did not testify during his trial.
The charges included commanding recruits to choke each other; ordering them to drink chocolate milk and then training them until they vomited; punching recruits in the face or kicking them to the ground; and twice ordering Muslim recruits into an industrial clothes dryer.
“He wasn’t making Marines. He was breaking Marines,” prosecutor Lt. Col. John Norman told jurors Wednesday. He called Felix a bully who heaped special abuse on three Muslim recruits because of their faith.
One of the three, Raheel Siddiqui, committed suicide in March 2016 by jumping off a stairwell after Felix barked at and slapped the 20-year-old Pakistani-American from Taylor, Michigan. Siddiqui’s family last month filed a $100 million wrongful death lawsuit against the Marine Corps.
The government did not charge Felix with any crime directly related to Siddiqui’s death. The judge, Lt. Col. Michael Libretto, allowed testimony about Felix confronting and slapping Siddiqui, but not about whether Felix’s actions were responsible for the recruit’s subsequent death.
Felix was convicted of ordering former trainee Lance Cpl. Ameer Bourmeche into a clothes dryer, which then was turned on as Felix demanded he renounce his Islamic faith. Bourmeche testified that he twice affirmed his faith and Felix and another drill instructor twice sent him for a bruising, scorching tumble inside the dryer. After a third spin, Bourmeche said he feared for his life and renounced his religion. The drill instructors then let him out, he said.
Felix also was convicted of ordering former recruit Rekan Hawez, a native of Iraqi Kurdistan who is now a civilian, to climb into the dryer about the same 2015 period as Bourmeche. The machine was never turned on.
Jurors also convicted Felix of rousting nearly two dozen recruits from their sleep and packing them into the clothes drying room. Recruits were ordered to lie on the floor, and Felix and two other drill instructors walked on their bodies.
Felix also was convicted of ordering Bourmeche to simulate chopping off the head of a fellow Marine while reciting “God is Great” in Arabic. He was convicted of calling Hawez, Bourmech and Siddiqui “ISIS” or “terrorist.”
Felix was permanently removed from his duties as a drill instructor after the investigation began, Marine Corps spokesman Capt. Joshua Pena said.
In a closing statement Wednesday, defense attorney Navy Lt. Cmdr. Daniel Bridges, said the government unfairly fashioned contradictory witness accounts into a case against the brawny drill instructor who called all recruits “terrorist.”
The Felix trial shows that the Marines have drawn lines for when harsh training becomes criminal conduct, said Michael Hanzel, a former Navy attorney who attended the Camp Lejeune proceedings.
Hanzel, now a private attorney specializing in military law near Charleston, South Carolina, said changing times have made it less acceptable to target people based on their religion
“I don’t think anyone would say that was acceptable ever, but it probably was not prosecuted in the past the way it would be now,” he said.