The Orlando Pulse Club Massacre and the exoneration of Noor Salman
Attorney Charles Swift: “The more we learned, the better Noor Salman looked”
On June 12, 2016, Omar Mateen entered Pulse club in Orlando and killed 49 people and injured 53 others. He was killed by the police. Mateen was survived by a wife, Noor Salman, and a child. The US government charged Noor with crimes arising from that massacre committed by her late husband. After a jury trial in Orlando, she was found not guilty on all charges. On social media though, Noor Salman gets a lot of hate because most people are not familiar with the case beyond the soundbites.
A lot of people have questions about the case. Below are a number of questions about the case and my answers:
-Why did the government charge Noor when none of the wives or girlfriends of other mass shooters got charged criminally? That is a very good question. Some people think it is a result of anti-Muslim, anti-Arab bias. Other people think it is because of the nature of the crime and the fact that it is classified as terrorism. My take on it is that the fact that Noor was vulnerable, emotionally and mentally, and that she talked to the government without having a lawyer present played the decisive role in her being charged.
-What did the government charge her with, the government must have had evidence that she committed crimes, otherwise how could they charge her? It is easy to charge, hard to convict. The federal government charges through grand juries. There is a saying that a grand jury would indict a ham sandwich. This means that it is really easy to charge someone with a crime. The grand jury hears from one side- the government’s side. Also, if the grand jury refuses to charge, the government can impanel another grand jury to get an indictment. However, to convict, the trial jury has to find the defendant guilty beyond any reasonable doubt. This standard is pro- defendant. And despite the wrong perception that some people have about juries, juries do a fine job most of the time. Noor faced two charges- obstruction of justice and material support. Both are felonies and, if convicted, she could have faced life in prison.
-What do we know about Omar Matten? Mateen is a very curious and interesting case. Like many mass killers, he was an abusive partner. He was also on the FBI’s radar. He had a connection to the FBI. They interviewed him more than one time regarding statements he made that were supportive of terrorist organizations. It seems he was also an informant. The FBI had his phone number and texted him at least once to provide information about a Muslim community member who had travelled to Syria. This came up in the Defendant’s Response to the Government’s Order Revoking Defendant’s Release. It is undisputed that Mateen’s father was a paid FBI informant. This makes this case very unusual.
-What is the mistake Noor made? Talking to the FBI without a lawyer. She talked to them for hours- 11 hours- seemingly without asking for a lawyer. She was lulled into a sense of security. Just like many people who think that their innocence protects them, she decided to talk to the government without the benefit of legal counsel. The FBI claimed that she made more than one statement that implicated her. They claimed that she not only knew that Mateen was about to do but helped him as well and lied to obstruct the investigation and provided him with an alibi.
-What are the lessons of the Noor Salman case? Many lessons. One is, to remember the American saying that one of the three American lies is “I am from the government and I am here to help you.” When you are on the receiving end of an investigation, you should not trust the government. You get a lawyer to protect your rights. Second, remember that the FBI agents are police officers in civilian clothing. If they have reason, even if it is not a strong one, to believe that you violated the law, they will be looking for any evidence to confirm that suspicion. It is called confirmation bias and it would be on you the suspect to diffuse these suspicions- a lawyer should do that for you. I suggest that everyone in this country watch My Cousin Vinny to see how encounters with law enforcement can unpredictably unfold and lead to a confession of a crime that the confessor never committed. False confessions do happen.
- Given the immensity of the crime and the desire to have someone pay for the crime, it is surprising that she was found not guilty. What explains it? Many factors. Noor’s family stood by her. A number of her family members put their homes on the line to secure bond. The Constitutional Law Center for Muslims in America paid her legal expenses. She had great lawyers. She had a good judge and a jury that was willing to consider the law and the facts and reach the verdict that the law and the facts require- regardless of political and popular sentiment.
-The government has a high conviction rate, especially in terrorism cases. They have discretion- Why did they choose to bring such a case that is largely circumstantial and is built on an iffy confession of a vulnerable woman? The New York Times did not exaggerate when it wrote that the case presented “the rarest of defeats: a loss in a terrorism case.” Noor’s attorney’s answer to this question is: “Mistakes were made by everybody, but nobody would admit to them. Mistakes were made by the interrogators, and by the original people who looked at Mateen, and the prosecution. At every level. Salman was a solution to all their mistakes. But the jury didn’t buy it.” It is worth pondering attorney Charles Swift’s statement.
The Statements to the FBI: https://media.clickorlando.com/document_dev/2018/01/05/EXHIBIT%2023%20-%20SALMANS%20VERBALL%20INTERVIEW%20-%20WRITTEN%20BY%20FBI%20AGENT%20-%20INITIALED%20BY%20HER_1515170363936_11448149_ver1.0.pdf
Defendant’s Response to the Government’s Motion for an Order Revoking Defendant’s Release: https://extremism.gwu.edu/sites/g/files/zaxdzs2191/f/Salman%20Defendant%27s%20Response.pdf