Beaufort News

10-year sentence upheld for Parris Island drill instructor guilty of abusing recruits

A military court has upheld the conviction and sentence of a former Parris Island drill instructor found guilty of abusing recruits, including targeting Muslims.

The U.S. Navy-Marine Corps Court of Appeals denied the appeal of Joseph Felix, a former Marine gunnery sergeant who was found guilty at a court-martial in 2017 of multiple charges related to abusing Marine Corps trainees. He was sentenced to 10 years in prison, was demoted to private and received a dishonorable discharge.

Felix “was a bully; his misconduct impacted an entire generation of Marines,” Senior Judge Frank Hutchison wrote for the three-judge appeals court.

The panel is an intermediate court that reviews court-martial cases in certain instances, such as when someone receives a dishonorable discharge or is sentenced to confinement of at least a year. Felix could petition the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces to request further review of his case, according to published procedure.

Felix was alleged to have targeted three Muslim recruits in particular, referring to them as “terrorist” and “ISIS” and forcing two of the recruits into an industrial clothes dryer.

One of those trainees, 20-year-year-old Raheel Siddiqui, fell three stories from a barracks stairwell to his death in March 2016. Before Siddiqui fell, Felix had forced him to run punitive sprints and slapped Siddiqui in the face in what some interpreted as an attempt to revive the recruit, a military investigation found.

The Marine Corps ruled Siddiqui’s death was a suicide, a finding his parents have disputed.

Felix wasn’t charged in Siddiqui’s death. During the court-martial, the government was not allowed to suggest Felix had a role in the recruit dying.

A phone message for an attorney for Felix wasn’t immediately returned Monday.

In his appeal, Felix argued a judge erred in allowing testimony that the drill instructor “targeted and disliked Muslims” and that a motive related to ethnicity and religion wasn’t related to his charges. The appeals court said the evidence was relevant to prove the charges of mistreatment and that Felix carried out the actions at the center of the charges because he believed the recruits were Muslim.

He also contended prosecutors wrongly connected Felix’s actions and Siddiqui’s death and that his defense attorney failed to object to inadmissable evidence or challenge the prosecutor’s narrative that he targeted Muslims. The appeals judges rejected those arguments.

Felix also argued on appeal that the 10-year sentence and discharge were “inappropriately severe or disparate” compared to other drill instructors involved in the allegations of mistreating recruits. But Felix’s misconduct was more severe and wide-ranging than others facing charges and he was the most senior drill instructor involved, the appeals court said.

Hutchison’s opinion affirming the sentence said Felix:

  • Tumbled a Muslim recruit in the dryer until he renounced his faith.
  • Punched, slapped and strangled recruits and ordered subordinates to do the same to each other.
  • Forced trainees to drink excessive amounts of chocolate milk and then engage in physical training to make them vomit.
  • Poured laundry detergent on the floor and forced recruits “to use each other as human mops to clean the deck. “

Felix frequently drank before carrying out abuse, the appeals court said.

The former drill instructor was placed in a position of trust over trainees with “nearly unchecked power over every aspect of their lives,” Hutchison wrote. Instead of being a positive example, he taught them that rule-breaking and violence were acceptable, the court said.

“While we recognize the mitigation evidence presented by the appellant, including his many military accomplishments and the tragic consequences his conviction has on his family, we are convinced the appellant received the punishment he deserved,” Hutchison wrote.

In a statement on the ruling, an attorney for Siddiqui’s family said it was important for those involved — directly or indirectly — in the recruit’s death be held accountable. The Shiraz Law Firm has investigated Siddiqui’s death during the past, including his transport to medical facilities and treatment, the statement said.

“The truth has a way of unveiling itself at the right time and we are prepared to litigate accordingly,” the statement provided by attorney Shiraz Khan said.

A $100 million wrongful death lawsuit filed by Siddiqui’s family against the government was dismissed by a federal judge last year. Khan appealed the decision and the case is pending, he said Monday.

Stephen Fastenau covers northern Beaufort County as a reporter for The Beaufort Gazette and The Island Packet, where he has worked since 2010 and been recognized with state and national awards. He studied journalism and political science at the University of South Carolina in Columbia and lives in Beaufort.
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