Boot camp at Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island is about to face one of its greatest tests of public scrutiny in more than six decades.
While other hazing and abuse cases have received attention — see that of former Sgt. Jeffrey VanDyke, who served a year in military prison after one of his trainees needed skin grafts from the bleach burns — the court-martial of Gunnery Sgt. Joseph Felix follows a recruit’s death.
Felix, a former Parris Island DI a Marine Corps investigation linked to former recruit Raheel Siddiqui’s death, is scheduled to stand trial by general court-martial beginning Tuesday at Marine Corps Camp Lejeune, N.C.
Felix is accused of hazing and abusing Siddiqui, who leapt to his death from the third floor of his barracks March 18, 2016. Felix was reported to have forcefully slapped Siddiqui in the face moments before his death, and to have referred to the 20-year-old Muslim recruit from Taylor, Mich., as a “terrorist.” Felix is also alleged to have ordered another Muslim recruit into a commercial clothes dryer — the trainee was burned during the incident — in July 2015, and to have interrogated the trainee about his loyalty and faith.
A Marine Corps court docket shows Felix has been charged with three counts of maltreatment, obstruction of justice, making a false statement, drunk and disorderly conduct, dereliction of duty and eight counts of violations of a general order.
Some of those charges will be easier to prove than others, say former Marine Corps attorneys. And during the trial, prosecutors and defense counselors alike will navigate cultural complexities specific to the military and the Corps as they plead their cases.
If you’re following the trial — arguably the most public examination of boot camp since the 1956 court-martial of Matthew McKeon, whose actions caused six recruits to drown in Ribbon Creek — here are five things to watch for in hazing and abuse cases.
1. Tick, tick, tick
It’s been more than a year-and-a-half since Siddiqui’s death.
“It is extremely difficult to prosecute a drill instructor (hazing and abuse) case,” said Beaufort attorney and former Marine Corps prosecutor and defense counselor Jeff Stephens. “The best time to do it is if you can get it to trial quickly after the incident.”
The more time passes, the more loyal former recruits are to the Corps and to their former DIs, Stephens said. Prosecutors will try to uncover whether former recruits received loyalty speeches or were otherwise pressured to protect someone who, now, is a fellow Marine.
2. ‘100 mph’
“While the recruits are in recruit training, they’re going 100 mph. all the time and they’re under a lot of pressure, a lot of stress,” said Beaufort attorney and former lead prosecutor on Parris Island Brian Magee.
“They’re tired, they’re not getting a whole lot of sleep,” Magee said. “So their frame of reference as to what happened or when something happened, it’s very hard to get an accurate picture ... .”
From the defense’s standpoint, counsel will look for inconsistencies in testimony and pick apart former recruits’ memories in light of the stressful training environment.
3. ‘When there’s smoke, there’s fire?’
But in cases where there are a lot of allegations, prosecutors will remind juries of that.
“Even if they’re differing allegations, or if the stories don’t all match up, you’ve heard this saying,” Magee said. “‘Where there’s smoke, there’s fire,’” ... and it’s easy for (juries) to buy that.”
4. ‘Spaghetti against the wall’
Charging the accused often amounts to “throwing spaghetti against the wall,” Stephens said. You apply all the charges you can and see which ones stick.
From his and Magee’s experience, Article 92 charges — violation of a general order — are often easy to prove. For example, you don’t have to prove that a DI hit a recruit and broke his jaw; rather, all you have to prove is that he made improper physical contact with the recruit as spelled out in Parris Island’s Recruit Training Order.
“And I think that any DI, any series commander — officers who directly supervise DIs — any prosecutor would tell you violations of the RTO happen every day,” Magee said. “The RTO is written very broadly to ... encompass a whole lot of conduct ... .”
On the flip side, maltreatment can be difficult to prove, Stephens said. Why? Because recruit training is hard, and recruits themselves are confused when the lines between tough training and abuse blur. And after they graduate boot camp, recruits often don’t feel they were mistreated.
“When I was a series commander and company commander, and we would do exit interviews with recruits,” Stephens said, “one of the biggest complaints I heard from (them) was, ‘I thought (boot camp) would be harder.’ ... And I always explained to the recruits, ‘The Marine Corps trains you to minimum standards at recruit training — we’re not trying to kill anybody.’”
Magee, who thinks prosecutors tend to have the easier task in these types of cases, said trials often come down to “who can tell the better story.”
Defense counselors will try to get juries to see their clients’ humanity, and to sympathize with them.
Prosecutors will try to get juries to “hate” the accused, and convict them.
But these are things, Magee says, that happen in any trial, military or civilian.
Gunnery Sgt. Joseph Felix’s court-martial: the basics
It’s a general court-martial, the highest-level military court.
The trial is scheduled for 16 days, according to a Marine Corps court docket.
During the trial phase, discussion of Raheel Siddiqui’s death will only be allowed as it pertains to the obstruction charge, per a judge’s ruling. Felix’s defense team earlier asked that it not be referenced at all.
Sgt. Michael Eldridge — who was allegedly also involved in the clothes dryer incident in July 2015 — is expected to testify against Felix as part of a plea deal, some news outlets have reported.