The Marine Corps has made a change to a rare, high-level court-martial originally scheduled to overlap the two-year anniversary of the controversial death of a former Marine trainee.
And while the Corps won’t explain the variance, three military law experts say it likely indicates a forthcoming guilty plea.
Lt. Col. Joshua Kissoon — the highest-ranking Marine implicated in the recruit hazing and abuse scandal in the wake of Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island trainee Raheel Siddiqui’s March 18, 2016, death — was, until recently, scheduled to stand trial by general court-martial during a 10-day period, from March 12 to 21 at Marine Corps Base Quantico.
Now, however, the trial is slated for a single day, according to the government’s court docket and confirmed by Marine Corps Training and Education Command spokesman Capt. Joshua Pena.
That date is Monday, Pena said, confirming that it was, indeed, a scheduling change.
When asked further about the change, Pena said “Uniform Code of Military Justice procedures” prevented him from commenting.
Brian Magee, a Beaufort attorney and a Marine Corps veteran who once served as Parris Island’s lead prosecutor, said the change likely indicates a plea.
“Reading the tea leaves on that,” Magee said, “the only logical explanation of (the scheduling change) is that it’s going to be a guilty plea.”
He could not think of anything else the move could indicate.
“A trial of that magnitude,” he continued, “I would expect no less than a week (of court time).”
The court-martial of a field-grade officer such as Kissoon is a rarity, according to the Corps.
On March 31, 2016, Parris Island officials announced the relief of command of Kissoon — then-commander of 3rd Recruit Training Battalion — a decision the depot said was made two weeks earlier, on the day before Siddiqui’s death.
Siddiqui, a trainee in that unit, died after a nearly 40-foot fall from his third-floor barracks. His death was ruled a suicide by Beaufort County Coroner Ed Allen. Shortly before the fall, Siddiqui’s senior drill instructor, then-Gunnery Sgt. Joseph Felix, was witnessed forcefully slapping the recruit, who had collapsed in the squad bay during a series of punitive sprints.
In a November court-martial at Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune, N.C., Felix was convicted of abusing Siddiqui and targeting two additional Muslim recruits in earlier hazing incidents by ordering them into commercial clothes dryers. Felix was sentenced to 10 years in prison and slapped with a dishonorable discharge, forfeiture of pay and reduction in rank to private.
Kissoon faces court-martial for failing to sideline Felix, who should not have been supervising Siddiqui’s platoon because he was being investigated for the dryer incidents, according to the Corps. Kissoon is accused of several violations of the UCMJ, including failing to obey an order, making a false statement and conduct unbecoming an officer.
“Usually, when a weeklong trial becomes a one-day trial, (that means) it’s a guilty plea,” said Charleston-area attorney and former Navy lawyer Micheal Hanzel.
“That’s the most likely explanation by far,” he continued, adding that he offered his analysis with “95 percent certainty.”
Jeff Stephens, a Beaufort attorney who trained at Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island in the 1990s and later served there as a Marine prosecutor and defense counselor, echoed Hanzel’s sentiment.
“The only conceivable reason to docket a case for one day is because it’s a plea,” Stephens said, adding that a defendant could, before or on his court date, change his mind and enter a plea of not guilty.
“We can definitively say what (Kissoon’s scheduling change) isn’t,” Stephens said. “It isn’t a trial, because you would need to schedule more than one day for that. And it isn’t a dismissal, because you wouldn’t docket a dismissal because it doesn’t have to be on the record.”
While Kissoon’s fate could be known soon, Siddiqui’s family is still seeking answers to their son’s death.
They have filed a $100 million lawsuit against the federal government, claiming negligence led to his death.