On Friday, just before the holiday weekend, a Florida jury acquitted the wife of Orlando jihadist Omar Mateen on several criminal counts. Prosecutors contended that Noor Salman had obstructed justice by misleading investigators and had provided material support to a terrorist organization -- but the jury cleared her after an eight-day trial. Salman's husband pledged allegiance to ISIS and murdered 49 people at a central Florida gay nightclub in 2016. Many reacted to last week's verdicts with disgust and disbelief, particularly in light of news reports about a confession statement Salman had signed:
Noor Salman confessed to knowing her husband's plans to open fire on a gay nightclub in Orlando, according to a 12-page statement in her own words that was written down by an FBI agent on June 12, 2016. The alleged confession happened hours after her husband, Omar Mateen, killed 49 people and injured 53 others in a mass shooting at the Pulse nightclub in south downtown Orlando. "I'm very sorry I lied to the FBI. These are my words," Salman wrote at the end of the 12-page document. "I am sorry for what happened. I wish I'd go back and tell his family and the police what he was going to do." ...Just more than a week before the shooting, Salman, Mateen and their young son went to Downtown Disney, now Disney Springs. "While there, he left me and my son for 20 minutes, but I don't know what he was doing," Salman said to the FBI. "When we were leaving, Omar said, 'What would make people more upset? An attack on Downtown Disney or a club?'"
Prosecutors allege, she even knew where and when the attack was going to happen. "We drove around the Pulse nightclub for about 20 minutes with all the windows of the car down," she said to the FBI. "Omar was driving slowly, looking around and at one point stated 'How upset are people going to be when it gets attacked?'" On the night before the attack, Salman told FBI agents, Mateen was looking at the Pulse website. "Omar was looking at website for the Pulse nightclub and when I saw what he was looking at, he said 'This is my target.' I knew that the time to attack the club was close," Salman said. Before Mateen left their south Florida home, Salman said he asked her if he looked "Spanish" and said, "This is the one day." "I knew when he left the house he was going to Orlando to attack the Pulse nightclub," she said.
So how could members of the jury have possibly decided to declare her not guilty? Well, in addition to a defense expert's assertion that Ms. Salman -- an alleged abuse victim -- possesses such a low IQ that she was uniquely susceptible to pressure and persuasion from investigators, evidence was produced at trial very strongly suggesting that at least part of her confession was false: Cell phone location records and web browsing histories indicated that her story about joining her husband to 'case' the nightclub prior to the attack was a fabrication. An FBI agent testified that investigators knew this to be the case. Beyond that, the FBI failed to record their grueling, marathon interrogation of Salman, raising additional questions about the reliability of her supposed admissions:
In her supposed confession, Ms. Salman told F.B.I. agents that she and Mr. Mateen had scouted Pulse as a target for the June 12, 2016, attack, yet investigators apparently knew just days later that there was no evidence to corroborate that. That false statement in her confession called into question the rest of what she told law enforcement over more than 11 hours of questioning without a lawyer present. The F.B.I. made no audio or video recordings of the interview. The jury foreman told The Sentinel that he wished a recording had been available. “Twenty years ago, not everybody who you ran into had a digital recorder in their pocket, and we didn’t have ‘CSI’ shows, and we didn’t expect to have everything on tape for us to see,” said David S. Weinstein, a former federal prosecutor in Miami who is now a defense lawyer. “But that’s what we expect now. If there isn’t a picture, it didn’t happen. So the fact that they didn’t record the confession helped to raise this reasonable doubt as to what was being said.”
Between this and the FBI's premature determination that Mr. Mateen was not a threat (plus this wrinkle), the Pulse massacre has emerged as another black eye for federal law enforcement. Salman was acquitted by 12 Floridians who simply did not fully trust that her confession was given freely or accurately, and who ultimately concluded that prosecutors could not prove their allegations beyond a reasonable doubt. That does not mean, however, that the jury was persuaded that Salman was completely innocent or ignorant of her husband's overall intentions. Quite the opposite, according to the jury foreman -- via the Orlando Sentinel:
Jury 'convinced' Noor Salman knew of Pulse nightclub attack, but had 'no option' but to acquit, foreman says https://t.co/TpkwDhyRnw— Fox News (@FoxNews) March 31, 2018
"I want to make several things very clear. A verdict of not guilty did NOT mean that we thought Noor Salman was unaware of what Omar Mateen was planning to do. On the contrary we were convinced she did know. She may not have known what day, or what location, but she knew. However, we were not tasked with deciding if she was aware of a potential attack. The charges were aiding and abetting and obstruction of justice. I felt the both the prosecution and the defense did an excellent job presenting their case. I wish that the FBI had recorded their interviews with Ms. Salman as there were several significant inconsistencies with the written summaries of her statements. The bottom line is that, based on the letter of the law, and the detailed instructions provided by the court, we were presented with no option but to return a verdict of not guilty.”
It looks like investigators left the door wide open to doubts about coercion, while prosecutors are understandably being second-guessed by people who say they over-charged Salman. Others argue she should never have been prosecuted at all. I'll leave you with a chilling and fascinating detail that emerged at trial: Mateen initially wanted to inflict his horror upon Disney World's shopping complex, but decided that the theme park area was too well protected by armed police; he therefore shifted his plans to attack a defenseless dance club. These specifics shed some light onto how a demented individual bent on maximum destruction made decisions about his target -- and also call into question the narrative that Mateen went out of his way to select an LGBT hotspot explicitly due to anti-gay bigotry. Perhaps the jury's not-guilty verdict is an example of the system working properly, which sometimes results in justice not being adequately served.