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Why a judge will limit discussion of Parris Island recruit's death at court-martial

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JESSICA BIDWELL/STARS AND STRIPES

By WADE LIVINGSTON | The Island Packet (Tribune News Service) | Published: August 18, 2017

A military judge will limit discussion of the controversial death of a former Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island trainee at the upcoming court-martial of a former drill instructor linked to the incident.

Defense counsel for Gunnery Sgt. Joseph A. Felix asked the judge sometime within the past month that “the death (of former recruit Raheel Siddiqui) not be referenced at all” at Felix’s upcoming general court-martial, the highest military court, according to Capt. Joshua Pena, spokesman for the Corps’ Training and Education Command.

But a Marine Corps investigation in the wake of Siddiqui’s death found that Felix’s actions were “likely the impetus” for his death.

On March 18, 2016, Felix allegedly made a reportedly ill Siddiqui — who’d threatened suicide days earlier but returned to training after being assessed by depot officials — perform a series of punitive sprints. Siddiqui fell to the floor, unresponsive. Felix allegedly violently slapped him in the face several times. Siddiqui, 20, reportedly then jumped up and ran out the back of his three-story squadbay, vaulted over the stairwell and landed nearly 40 feet below.

In response to the defense counsel’s request, prosecutors filed a counter-motion, and the judge ruled to limit discussion of the incident as it pertains to an allegation of obstruction — just one of several violations of military code Felix is charged with.

“The defense did file a motion ... to disallow mention of Recruit Siddiqui's death or placing blame of that death at the hands of the accused,” Navy Lt. Cmdr. Clay Bridges — assistant senior defense counsel for the Defense Service Office’s Southeast region, and one of Felix’s attorneys — wrote Friday in an email to The Island Packet and Beaufort Gazette. “Judicial Notice will be taken that Recruit Siddiqui is deceased as it relates to the obstruction of justice charge. It will not be mentioned for any other purpose.”

When asked how the public should interpret the defense’s effort to disallow discussion of Siddiqui’s death, Bridges replied: “Any ultimate conclusion would sway into defense strategies, and ... we will not discuss pre-trial strategy.”

In an email to the newspapers Friday afternoon, Siddiqui family attorney Shiraz Khan expressed concern about why the circumstances of the recruit’s death wouldn’t be allowed to be discussed.

“The central concern here is why aren’t the facts, findings, and evidence that led to Raheel’s death being included in this court martial?” Khan wrote. “If all that is allowed is ‘judicial notice’ of the fact that Raheel Siddiqui is dead, without any mention of how his death occurred, what is this case really about?”

According to the Detroit Free Press, which Thursday published the news of the judge’s ruling, the decision to limit discussion stemmed from concerns that it would “prejudice a jury against Felix.”

“If facts are facts, here are some very important ones,” Khan wrote. “The assault” — Felix has not been charged with assault — “was well documented and we feel there was more than enough evidence in this case to bring assault (at the very least) as a charge. But the assault charge was not included for reasons we’ll never understand. Had assault been brought from the very beginning, the defense’s umbrella of ‘prejudice’ would have had far less to stand on, but we are very aware of what’s going on.”

Felix also is accused of failing to obey an order, making false statements, being drunk and disorderly and “cruelty and maltreatment.”

In addition to being linked to Siddiqui’s death, Felix is alleged in July 2015 to have ordered a Muslim recruit — Ameer Bourmeche, according to a recent New York Times Magazine story — into a commercial clothes dryer, turned on the machine — which burned the recruit — and interrogated him about his faith and loyalty.

Felix is alleged to have called both recruits — who are Muslim — “terrorist.”

The Corps said Felix should not have been supervising Siddiqui’s training platoon because he was already being investigated for hazing and recruit abuse stemming from the dryer incident.

The Corps deemed Siddiqui’s death a suicide.

The Siddiqui family and attorney Khan disagree with that determination.

Felix’s trial was originally scheduled to begin this month, but was rescheduled to Oct. 30 through Nov. 5 after his attorneys asked for a continuance.

The delay is because of the large number of witnesses and time needed to prepare, Bridges recently told the two local newspapers.

“With all the delays and amount of time the investigations into the death of Raheel Siddiqui have taken, the direction this case has followed is quite troubling,” Khan said. “However, we will continue to seek justice.”

In the wake of Siddiqui’s death, a hazing probe implicated 20 Marines in Parris Island’s biggest scandal since the 1956 Ribbon Creek incident, in which six recruits died when a drunken drill instructor led them on a punitive nighttime march into a marsh.

To date, seven Marines have been referred to courts-martial.

One has been acquitted.

One pleaded guilty at a low-level proceeding.

Another ended up avoiding court-martial with a pre-trial agreement.

And another was found guilty of some charges and had his rank reduced, and was reprimanded.

Other Marines have received administrative punishments which the Corps said it will not specify.

Two other Marines “have been found to have no substantiated allegations against them,” the Corps said in June. That same month, Military.com reported that two Parris Island drill instructors were back at work after being cleared of wrongdoing.

In addition to Felix, Staff Sgt. Michael K. Eldridge also faces court-martial for his alleged role in the clothes-dryer incident. Eldridge’s general court-martial is still set for Sept. 25 to Oct. 6, at Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune, which will also be the site of the Felix trial.

The Corps also announced the rare court-martial of a field-grade officer, Lt. Col. Joshua Kissoon, who commanded 3rd Recruit Training Battalion, the unit to which Felix and Eldridge belonged.

Kissoon is alleged to have failed to sideline Felix, allowing him to continue supervising Siddiqui and other recruits, even though the DI was being investigated for hazing and recruit abuse.

Dates for Kissoon’s general court-martial have not been announced.

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©2017 The Island Packet (Hilton Head, S.C.)
Visit The Island Packet (Hilton Head, S.C.) at www.islandpacket.com
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