QUANTICO, Virginia -- A former Marine drill instructor who was found guilty of accessing a recruit's Facebook page to ask his sister on a date, forcing another to do his homework, and violating various recruit training regulations will lose a rank and receive a reprimand, a military jury decided Friday.
Staff Sgt. Antonio Burke was convicted of violation of a lawful general order and of false official statement, but acquitted of cruelty and maltreatment and insubordinate conduct in a five-day general court-martial proceeding.
Burke was additionally found guilty of violating training regulations and conducting "illegal" incentive training and of failing to get proper medical attention for a recruit who passed out during training.
The jury found insufficient evidence to convict Burke of more glaring accusations, including hazing Marines with physical "incentive training" in a dusty abandoned squad bay known as "the Dungeon;" being drunk in front of recruits; and forcing recruits to slather in sunblock and roll around in a sand pit, irritating their skin.
In closing arguments, Burke's military defense attorney, Capt. Samuel Nelson, painted his client as a victim of collateral damage, arguing he was prosecuted to the fullest in the wake of another incident in the same battalion, the suicide death of recruit Raheel Siddiqui.
An investigation would later suggest that Siddiqui's abusive treatment at the hands of another drill instructor provided the impetus for his suicide.
"Where's the dead body?" Nelson asked the jury about the Burke case.
He asked that the panel assess no punishment apart from the public ordeal of being tried for his offenses.
"[Burke] got run up the flagpole as high as you can go. This is the top of the heap as far as court-martials go. This is where rapists and murderers are tried," Nelson said, referring to general court-martial at Quantico. "That is punishment enough."
Though the maximum possible sentence in the case was nine years, six months of confinement, the military prosecution asked for a sentence of two months, roughly one day for every recruit in Burke's platoon who saw him act improperly.
Capt. Jonathan Margolick, an attorney for the prosecution, pointed out that Burke had previously been investigated for three separate incidents during his tenure as a drill instructor that spoke to poor judgment in his supervision of recruits: one incident in which he forced recruits to low-crawl on pavement while in shorts and T-shirts, resulting in skin abrasions; another in which he observed recruits drinking water until they vomited, but didn't seek medical attention for them; and another in which he made recruits dry-shave, then splashed Aqua Velva in their faces.
If Burke was not held accountable in this instance, Margolick suggested, he could have gone on to do something worse in the course of recruit training.
"We do not entertain ourselves at our subordinates' expense," he said. "We are not careless with the ones in our charge."
In the case of Zachary Mosier, the recruit who passed out on Burke's watch, something far graver could have happened, Margolick said.
"Truth be told, we're lucky no one died this time," he said.
Testimony in the case revealed heightened stress at boot camp amid a flurry of investigations in the wake of Siddiqui's death. Several witnesses testified Burke had sat his recruits down and handed out Clif bars while broadly hinting that they should avoid saying anything negative to investigators about their drill instructors. He was ultimately acquitted of this charge, however, amid contradictory testimony.
Witnesses also spoke of a culture of zero tolerance under Lt. Col. Joshua Kissoon, then-commander of 3rd Recruit Training Battalion.
"Battalion commander had a reputation for being heavy handed with drill instructors even for minor violations," testified Eric Hegg, a former Marine captain who commanded 3rd Battalion's Kilo Company when Burke was on the drill field. "Drill instructors would try to police their own rather than creating paper that would follow them the rest of their career."
Kissoon would be removed from his post March 31, 2016, just weeks after Siddiqui's death. He now faces charges in connection to an unrelated case of alleged hazing and is accused of returning a drill instructor to train recruits despite an ongoing hazing investigation. The date for his court-martial has yet to be set.
Hegg, and an assortment of other Marines who had served with Burke, testified to his strong work ethic and commitment to his job and identity as a Marine, even while he was going through personal difficulties, including grieving the death of an infant son.
"The minimum was not acceptable," Hegg said of the environment in 3rd Battalion. "Staff Sgt. Burke was one who could produce above-average statistics in recruits."
Jennifer Cabrera, the woman who was called and propositioned by Burke after her brother was forced to turn over his Facebook information, also submitted a letter to the court, saying Burke's actions had lowered her opinion of the Marine Corps.
"I personally am not sure how I would feel if any other family member or children of mine would join this organization," she wrote.
In an emotional statement, Burke recounted growing up in a broken home amid poverty and drug use and finding shelter and purpose in the Marine Corps. Asked if he wanted to say anything to the recruits of his former platoon, from which Burke was removed before they graduated, he nodded.
"For the longest time, I've wanted to tell them congratulations. I know they won't forget this experience, and it will humble them as well," he said.
The most serious allegations to arise out of the investigations into hazing within 3rd Recruit Training Battalion have yet to go to trial.
Gunnery Sgt. Joseph Felix and Staff Sgt. Michael Eldridge are set to face general court-martial at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, this fall.
Eldridge and Felix are both accused of hazing a Muslim-American recruit by stuffing him into an industrial dryer and interrogating him, while Felix is also accused in connection with the case of Siddiqui, another Muslim-American recruit.