UPDATE: A military jury today sentenced former drill instructor Gunnery Sgt. Joseph Felix to 10 years’ confinement for violating orders and mistreating recruits, including Raheel Siddiqui of Taylor who died in 2016.
PREVIOUS: CAMP LEJEUNE, N.C. — A 15-year Marine Corps veteran of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan fought back tears Friday morning as he and his lawyers pleaded with a jury to give him a light sentence for mistreating recruits, including Raheel Siddiqui of Taylor, who died while under his command in 2016.
Speaking of his wife, his four young daughters and his Marine Corps service, Gunnery Sgt. Joseph Felix — a former drill instructor at the Corps' iconic training base at Parris Island, S.C. — stood before the eight members of the jury who Thursday night convicted him of numerous offenses against recruits, saying their finding alone "takes away everything that I've done in the Marine Corps."
"Gentlemen," he said, in a soft, western drawl, his voice breaking, "I'm a shattered man as I stand before you."
As he spoke, Felix apologized for becoming emotional — visibly moved as his wife described his relationship with their daughters and showed a photo of two of them hugging him as he returned from Iraq — and noted that he has already been refused re-enlistment and that his life as a Marine is over.
Convicted of a dozen counts of violating orders and maltreating recruits by punching, choking, kicking and otherwise abusing them — as well as targeting three Muslim recruits, including Siddiqui, for abuse, Felix, 34, has no one to blame but himself, prosecutors said.
"Marines do not haze and maltreat each other. Send them a message with a harsh sentence in this case," said Col. Jeffrey Groharing, who spoke for the prosecution and asked the jury to sentence Felix to seven years confinement, a dishonorable discharge and a rank reduction to private.
The jury began its deliberation on a sentence shortly after noon Friday.
After the sentencing hearing began Friday morning, prosecutors read an edited statement to the jury from Ghazala Siddiqui, Raheel's mother, in which she chastised the Corps for lying to her and her family and making them believe they would take care of her son, not abuse him.
Siddiqui, who was in Felix's training platoon at Parris Island, died on March 18, 2016, after a three-story fall. According to investigators, he leaped over a stairwell railing — his foot catching as he did – after being forced to run sprints by Felix in the barracks, despite asking for medical attention for a sore, bleeding throat and then being slapped by Felix when he collapsed on the floor.
A local coroner and the Marines deemed it a suicide, though the family— which has filed a $100-million lawsuit against the Corps — has rejected that, saying Raheel would not kill himself as a faithful Muslim, had never had any mental issues previously and was emotionally and physically prepared for the rigors of boot camp.
Throughout the court-martial, the prosecution produced witnesses that said Felix targeted three Muslim recruits, having ordered two — Ameer Bourmeche and Rekan Hawez — into industrial dryers on the base the summer before Siddiqui's death and calling them "terrorists."
That abuse — which was under investigation when Raheel Siddiqui went to boot camp — was kept from his family, they have told the Free Press, or they never would have let Raheel go to Parris Island.
"Why did they treat him like a terrorist?" Ghazala Siddiqui said in the portion of the statement read to the jury. "He was born in America and was raised here. ... He trusted the Marines."
She also said that the Truman High School valedictorian was "put under control of people (at Parris Island) who hated Muslims."
The Siddiqui family has talked at length to the Free Press in the past about the pain Raheel's death has caused them and how they feel the Marines failed to protect their son, despite recruiting him. They have also said suggestions that he wasn't prepared for boot camp are incorrect, that he trained for months to get ready.
Bourmeche, now a lance corporal in the Marines, also gave a statement to the jury, saying that the incident with Felix — who was convicted of forcing him to do exercises in the shower room and then get into a dryer after lights out, despite not being in Felix's platoon — has continued to affect him, causing him anxiety, depression and sleepless nights.
"In some dreams, I see Gunnery Sgt. Felix killing my family," he said.
On the defense side, Felix's wife, Jean, cried through much of the testimony Friday morning before taking the stand herself, describing their family life, how they met, and her husband's devotion to their children. Growing up in poor circumstances in a single-room trailer in Arizona, Felix entered the Marines after high school, trained as an air traffic controller and did tours in Iraq and Afghanistan.
"He always wanted to be a drill instructor," his wife said. "He always wanted to train Marines. ... He wanted to give back to the Marine Corps what they had given him."
As she spoke, describing how their daughters' lives would be devastated and their finances ruined by a harsh sentence, Felix fought back tears, his lip quivering. As she finished her testimony and a break was called, Felix called her name in the courtroom, "Jean Marie," and they held each other in a long embrace.
Speaking to the jury himself a short time later, Felix turned to his wife in the small, spartan courtroom and said, "Thank you for standing by me and being as wonderful as you are. I cannot repay the disappointment I feel you have in me."
Felix's wife attended the trial throughout, accompanying him in and out of the courtroom.
The defense asked that Felix be sentenced to no more than 30 days confinement and a reduction in rank, which would allow him to keep his veteran's benefits and insurance, noting that Felix had an earlier bout with cancer years ago and that his wife has a rare blood disease than can cause clots.
Felix also suggested his wife miscarried what would have been their fifth child in the last year.
Capt. John Heron, speaking for the defense, said a long confinement "isn't warranted in this case because it serves no societal purpose" because Felix is no longer a drill instructor and his Marine career is effectively over.
But the prosecution noted that its request for punishment is far less than the 21 years 9 months the jury maximum sentence the jury could impose. A larger message must be sent that hazing and abuse of Marines and recruits won't he tolerated, prosecutors said.
Noting that Felix said nothing about having remorse for his actions during his comments, Groharing said it's important to remember the young recruits that were hurt by Felix.
"What about them?" he asked.
►Make it easy to keep up to date with more stories like this. Download the WZZM 13 app now.
© 2017, Detroit Free Press