By Emery P. Dalesio
CAMP LEJEUNE, N.C. — A military jury begins deliberating Thursday on whether a Marine Corps drill instructor is guilty of beating, stomping and choking new recruits, or whether accounts of his abuse toward Muslim-American military hopefuls were overhyped by young troops.
The eight-man jury at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, will decide whether Gunnery Sgt. Joseph Felix — a brawny veteran of Iraq with the closely packed face of a boxer — was the furious center of an abusive group of drill instructors at the Parris Island, South Carolina, boot camp.
Felix was charged after the Marines investigated what drove one of his Muslim trainees at the boot camp to commit suicide in March 2016.
Investigators found unchecked abuse of recruits by junior drill instructors at the training depot. Six drill instructors, including Felix, were charged and the training battalion's commanding officer fired. A court-martial for Lt. Col. Joshua Kissoon is scheduled for March. Eleven others faced lesser, administrative discipline, Marine Corps spokesman Capt. Joshua Pena said.
Felix is accused of maltreating three Muslim recruits. Raheel Siddiqui, a 20-year-old Pakistani-American from Taylor, Michigan, committed suicide in March 2016 by jumping off a stairwell after Felix barked at and slapped him, prosecutors said. Siddiqui's family has filed a $100 million wrongful death lawsuit against the Marine Corps.
Felix also is accused of obstruction of justice for telling recruits not to cooperate with investigators after the suicide. He's also charged with drunk and disorderly conduct, making false official statements. He pleaded not guilty.
Felix faces the possibility of time in a military prison, financial penalties and a dishonorable discharge.
In 2015 and 2016, the drill instructor derided Siddiqui and two other Muslim as "terrorists," prosecutor Lt. Col. John Norman said in his closing arguments Wednesday. Felix also ordered former trainee Lance Cpl. Ameer Bourmeche to simulate chopping off the head of a fellow Marine while reciting "God is Great" in Arabic, Norman said.
Bourmeche said he was ordered into an industrial clothes dryer, which then was turned on as Felix demanded he renounce his Islamic faith.
Bourmeche testified that after he obeyed and climbed into the dryer, Felix and another drill instructor asked him whether he was a Muslim. He twice confirmed that he was, Bourmeche testified, and twice the trainers sent him for a bruising, scorching tumble inside the dryer. After a third spin, Bourmeche said he feared for his life and renounced his creed. The drill instructors then let him out, he said.
Eyewitnesses testified Felix slugged recruits in the face with his fist and kicked others to the ground, sometimes terrorizing recruits while drunk, Norman said.
Felix was permanently removed from his duties as a drill instructor after the investigation began, Pena said.
"He was drunk on power and sometimes Fireball whisky, and he used that power again and again," Norman said. "He abused his power to abuse his recruits. He punched them. He kicked them. He degraded their religion, and he put them in industrial appliances."
Felix did not testify. His chief defense attorney, Navy Lt. Cmdr. Daniel Bridges, said the dozens of prosecution witnesses gave contradictory accounts that the government unfairly fashioned into a case against the brawny drill instructor who called all recruits "terrorist." Young men told investigators fanciful stories including one in which Felix grabbed a recruit by the throat and lifted him off the ground with one arm, Bridges said.
"Just because a lot of people said it, doesn't mean it's beyond a reasonable doubt," the attorney said. "Not credible equals not guilty."
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