Trial Set to Begin in Largest Marine Corps Hazing Case in Years
Jury selection began Friday in a court-martial that will determine whether a senior Marine Corps drill instructor hazed one Muslim recruit by throwing him in an industrial dryer, and pushed another to suicide.
The trial of Gunnery Sgt. Joseph Felix is the culmination of more than a year-and-a-half of investigations and legal proceedings following the suicide death of 20-year-old Raheel Siddiqui in March 2016.
A Marine Corps command investigation released last year found Felix, then a senior drill instructor at Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island, South Carolina, struck and berated the young recruit immediately before his fatal leap from a three-story barracks building at the depot.
The investigation also found he had subjected another Muslim recruit to a mock interrogation in the middle of the night, forcing him to shout "Allah Akbar" and spinning him in a clothes dryer until his skin was burned.
According to a Marine docket, Felix faces eight counts of violation of a general order; three counts of maltreatment; and one count each of dereliction of duty, false official statement, drunk and disorderly conduct, and obstruction of justice.
His court-martial, which is being held at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, is expected to run 16 days, said Capt. Joshua Pena, a spokesman for Marine Corps Training and Education Command.
Felix's military attorney, Navy Lt. Cmdr. Clay Bridges, did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the case.
Amid three separate Marine investigations focused on 3rd Recruit Training Battalion, where Siddiqui was assigned, officials found sufficient evidence to sideline 15 drill instructors on suspicion of hazing and maltreatment of recruits, and fire five officers and senior leaders for failures in leadership and supervision.
In all, six former drill instructors would face charges: Staff Sgt. Antonio Burke, Sgt. Riley Gress, Staff Sgt. Matthew Bacchus, Staff Sgt. Jose Lucena-Martinez, Sgt. Michael Eldridge, and Felix.
Only Eldridge and Felix were accused of participating in the dryer incident. The others were charged in connection with unrelated allegations of hazing, involving unauthorized physical training and abuse of power, including an incident in which a drill instructor forced a recruit to complete his college homework.
Bacchus pleaded guilty to maltreatment at a summary court-martial in June, receiving 60 days' restriction but maintaining his rank and standing in the service.
Lucena-Martinez took a plea deal on his charges, avoiding court-martial and accepting administrative punishment.
Burke, the only drill instructor besides Felix to be tried at general court-martial, the most serious form of military court, was found guilty of violating a general order and making false official statements, but acquitted of hazing and maltreatment. He was demoted in rank and given a reprimand in August.
Eldridge, also accused in the dryer incident, was also set to face general court-martial, but in September was granted a private summary court-martial after agreeing to testify for the government against Felix, sources told Military.com. His proceeding has yet to take place.
The accusations of hazing at Parris Island, and outcry from Siddiqui's grief-stricken parents, have prompted inquiries from lawmakers including Rep. Debbie Dingell, a Democrat from Michigan.
Weeks before Felix's trial was set to begin, Siddiqui's parents filed a lawsuit alleging negligence on the part of the Marine Corps and demanding $100 million in damages.
Leaders have also been brought down in the scandal.
Lt. Col. Joshua Kissoon, who was removed from his post as commander of 3rd Recruit Training Battalion just weeks after Siddiqui's death, is set to face court-martial early next year. He is accused of returning Felix to his role training Marines while officials investigated allegations that he threw a recruit in a dryer. That alleged incident took place July 2015; Siddiqui's death would occur just 10 months later.
If convicted on all counts, Felix could face years in prison. But incidents of alleged hazing, even those involving a death, have often proven difficult to convict on and have frequently yielded much lighter sentences.
The last high-profile Marine Corps hazing case surrounded the 2011 suicide of 21-year-old Cpl. Harry Lew, who took his own life in Afghanistan after allegedly being brutally hazed by a number of Marines for falling asleep on watch. Thanks in part to Lew's aunt, Rep. Judy Chu of California, Lew's case received national attention.
Ultimately, however, the Marines accused of hazing Lew would not do hard time. Two were acquitted, and one took a plea deal to lesser charges of assault and was sentenced to 30 days behind bars and demotion.
In the most famous case of drill instructor hazing in Marine Corps history, six recruits drowned in 1956 when a DI who had been drinking marched his platoon into Parris Island's swampy Ribbon Creek. The drill instructor was ultimately convicted of drinking on duty and served three months in the brig before returning to active duty.
Opening arguments in the Felix case are set to begin Monday.
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