A federal jury in Orlando has found the widow of Pulse shooter Omar Mateen not guilty of aiding and abetting her husband in a terrorist attack. Noor Salman faced life in prison if convicted of the charge and of obstructing justice during the investigation of the shooting that left 49 people dead and 53 more injured at an Orlando gay club on June 12, 2016. Mateen died at the attack after an hours-long standoff with law enforcement. Salman was the only individual facing any criminal charges stemming from the attack.
Survivors of Pulse met the news of Salman's acquittal with heavy hearts. "We're letting someone walk," survivor Christopher Hansen told The Advocate. "She knew what he [Mateen] was doing." But Salman attorney Charles Swift walked of the Orlando courthouse saying, "Justice was done," according to Orlando TV station WKMG.
The month-long trial included heavy scrutiny of how the FBI treated Salman in the hours after the shooting. Much of the prosecution's case against Salman centered around three evolving statements signed by Salman but written by FBI Special Agent Ricardo Enriquez. At the very end of the statement, Salman in her own handwriting wrote the words "I'm very sorry I lied to the FBI. These are my words."
\u201cFirst photo since her release: #NoorSalman with her lawyers Linda Moreno, Fritz Scheller and Charles Swift. #NotGuilty #MovingForward\u201d
— Susan Clary Zayas\u270d\ufe0f (@Susan Clary Zayas\u270d\ufe0f)
But through rigorous cross-examination and during opening and closing arguments, attorneys for Salman argued those words originated from FBI agents coercing a confession from Salman; a clinical psychologist testified in trial that Salman had a low IQ and was more susceptible to giving a false confession than most individuals. While prosecutors at the end of the trial conceded Pulse was not Mateen's original intended target -- he initially went to Disney Springs and to a mainstream club in downtown Orlando before arriving at Pulse -- the signed statements include descriptions of casing Pulse and that Salman knew Pulse would be the club Mateen hit.
A number of findings of the FBI have become public over the course of the trial of Salman, including that cell phone data never showed Mateen visiting Pulse before the day of the shooting, despite numerous accounts to media (including The Advocate) from Pulse regulars who said Mateen visited the club before.
The aiding and abetting charge asserted Salman not only knew of Mateen's plan to commit a terrorist attack but that she actively participated in preparation and cover-up of the plan. Evidence at the trial included surveillance video of Salman with Mateen when he bought ammunition at Bass Pro Shops and at Walmart.
Among the most contested communications in the trial was a text sent by Salman to Mateen while he drove to Orlando on June 11 and then deleted. The text reads, "If ur mom calls say nimo invited you out and noor wants to stay home," words Assistant U.S. Attorney Sara Sweeney used as evidence Salman conceived of a story to tell Mateen's family about his whereabouts the night of the attack. The Pulse shooting took place the first weekend of Ramadan, shortly after ISIS leaders called in a YouTube video for attacks on U.S. soil during the holy period.
But defense attorneys brought Mateen's childhood friend, identified in court only as Nemo, who said Mateen regularly used their friendship as a cover story while he cheated on Salman. Defense attorney Linda Moreno argued in closing that it would be very unlikely Salman would offer the same cover story to Mateen that had been used to deceive her in the past.
The trial also revealed new revelations about the shooting, including that Mateen apparently had purchased a baby carriage in which to hide his assault-style rifle when at Disney, though he never followed through with that plan. Surveillance video from inside Pulse during the shooting also became public for the first time as a result of the trial.
Defense attorneys also claimed Salman had been beaten and abused by Mateen for years. Salman did not testify in her own defense, but said in a written survey before the trial that Mateen raped her, choked her, and threatened her life, and that she feared her would kill her. After all testimony in the trial concluded, more than 100 anti-domestic violence groups signed a letter in support of Salman distributed by the Justice for Muslims Collective.
The news of her acquittal stung for many connected to the Orlando LGBT and Latino communities. Orlando City Commissioner Patty Sheehan, who is gay, was speaking to youth at an LGBT center when news of the verdict broke. "We're disappointed," she said, "but unfortunately, we're a community that is accustomed to injustice."
Sheehan feels the best case was not put forward by prosecutors, and she particularly balked at the fact that investigators refused to acknowledge the attack as a hate crime targeting the gay community. "I don't know if it's internalized homophobia, but I don't know how you can have Omar Mateen's father saying after the attack that his son was disturbed by the sight of two men kissing and you [don't] take that on as substantive evidence," she said. "If they did a lousy job of prosecuting this, it is what it is, but if homophobia kept them from prosecuting this, then shame on them."
"If [Salman] knew about the shooting beforehand," said David Moran, a founding member of the Orlando chapter of Gays Against Guns, "she should have reported it and there should be consequences. But I hope the justice system has done its due diligence. Yet this is the same state that let George Zimmerman walk free after gunning down a young, black man simply because he was walking down the street."
But Moran said the important thing in the wake of the verdict is that people continue to the victims with action. And online today, he posted a list of the 49 killed in the Pulse attack.
State Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith, an out Latino lawmaker representing the Orlando area who has interfaced with Pulse survivors while promoting an assault weapons ban in Florida, said the verdict today should remind state leaders that court remedies cannot be the only way government serves marginalized populations. "We can't change what happened 6/12/16, but we can be there for one another as we continue to rebuild together," he said on Twitter. "The verdict should remind our political leaders, thoughts/prayers are never enough. Orlando needs mental health funds to support the impacted, anti-discrimination protections for LGBTQ ppl, + a ban on assault weapons now! We WILL NOT let you forget @PulseOrlando."
Survivors responded to the news with varying degrees of anger and calls to action on the policy front. If no one will ever be convicted for the Pulse shooting, some said, perhaps there can still be positive change regarding LGBT equality and gun control.
"Noor Salman does not define justice for the 49," said Pulse survivor Brandon Wolf. "We do. In our fight to protect other communities from feeling our pain. In our commitment to creating a better, safer world for our children. In our refusal to accept the corrupt status quo." Wolf has turned the tragedy into a powerful activist platform. He had been at Pulse with friends Drew Leinonen and Juan Guerrero, both of whom perished in the attack, but he's since helped launch a foundation in Leinonen's name and lobbied in Florida and Washington, D.C., for stronger gun laws.
Like Hansen, Wolf has participated in recent March for Our Lives events alongside other mass shooting survivors like Emma Gonzalez and other students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla.
Minutes after learning of the verdict, Pulse survivor Orlando Torres said he was disappointed and knew others would feel hurt as well. "Unfortunately, Justice was not served in the behalf of the 49 dear angels and more than 50 others that were injured," Torres said. "And the real truth is known in our God or her God that she worships."
Hansen said he would turn to his faith to get through the hard news, delivered just before Easter weekend. "Everything happens for a reason," Hansen said. "We've already been through hardship; maybe God has not meant to put us through anymore." Still, he said justice felt within reach but managed to slip away.
Christine Leinonen, who lost son Drew in the attack, said the verdict ultimately doesn't impact her life in any material way because it doesn't erase the shooting. "I'm doing fine. My life hasn't changed," she said. "My son is still dead."
She attended about a quarter of the trial proceedings and always worried about the strength of the government's case. While she figured evidence did exist for at least an obstruction of justice charge, she worried the FBI hat botched interactions with Salman early on. "The case was really compromised when you have an FBI agent who coerced a confession from someone when they weren't even a suspect,"she said.
Still, Leinonen feels Salman remains culpable for the attack, if only for allowing the environment in which Mateen's hate and radicalization occurred. She noted that as a child he cheered on the 9/11 attacks, but he never orchestrated a terrorist attack until living with Salman, his second wife. "He committed the jihad under her watch," Leinonen said.
Had the jury looked past the suspect parts of the confession, she said, prosecutors had presented "just barely" enough evidence for an aiding and abetting charge, with proof Mateen had purchased ammunition in Salman's presence and had given her thousands in jewelry and cash shortly before the attack. "She can't be a quiet mouse because she was accepting these gifts," Leinonen said. "She didn't seem like a quiet mouse when she was on those videos shopping with him. She's walking right beside him."
Barbara Poma, the owner of Pulse, sat through the Salman trial, even when video footage of the massacre was shown. Following the verdict today, she issued her own statement:
"I respect the criminal justice process, and we all have to trust that the jury made its decision free of bias and emotion. Those of us directly affected by this tragedy must find peace in our hearts and remember that he was the one who pulled the trigger that night. He was the perpetrator, and he should not have one more minute of power over our lives.
"This verdict cannot and will not divide us. The survivors, families, and first responders as well as the community of Orlando and everyone around the world must now focus on the work ahead of us. We will always carry the pain of what happened at Pulse, and we will never forget those who were taken. We will wrap our arms around all affected today and in the days to come.
"It will be difficult, but we will focus now on healing, and we will continue to work to help communities emerge from violence and hate. It is as important today as it was 21 months ago."