The mass shooting at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida in June 2016 was a horrific event even by the standards of the US where mass killings are so common, in which 49 people were killed and 58 wounded by a single person Omar Mateen, showing how much firepower he had at his disposal. Mateen himself was killed after a three-hour standoff with police. Mateen had sworn allegiance to ISIS and said that his motive was revenge for US actions against ISIS.
Since the nightclub was one frequented by the gay community and that evening had a large number of Latino patrons for a special event, a view quickly developed that Mateen had deliberately picked this club because he had also been driven by anti-gay sentiments, not an unreasonable hypothesis given the anti-gay animus that exists in much of the Islamic world. The authorities also vigorously prosecuted his wife Noor Salman as an accomplice of Mateen’s who helped him case the target before the shooting. She vigorously protested her innocence but the authorities charged her despite possessing evidence that undermined their case and which they tried to hide from the judge.
But two days ago, a jury acquitted her of all the charges. Glenn Greenwald says that this is a rare case when justice triumphed over bigotry.
As The Intercept has been reporting, the prosecution of Salman was bizarre and dubious from the start. Salman has no history of any political or religious radicalism, and was a victim of her husband’s violent abuse, not his partner or collaborator. Worse, Justice Department prosecutors got caught lying to the court, by telling the judge — when successfully demanding that Salman be held for the last year without bail — that she had “cased” the Pulse nightclub with her husband, an assertion the FBI quickly determined was false.
DOJ prosecutors also hid the fact that Omar’s father, Seddique Mateen, had been an FBI informant since 2005. It now seems clear that the FBI did not previously arrest the younger Mateen in 2013, after they investigated him, out of deference to his father, with whom they were working directly. Salman’s lawyers suggested that the reason for prosecuting Salman was to scapegoat her for the attack.
Salman, pictured on the right, had never gone to Pulse, nor had her husband until the night of the attack. Indeed, it became conclusively clear at the trial that, contrary to initial reports, not only had Mateen never been to Pulse, but he also chose it at random only after he found his original targets — including the Disney Springs shopping complex and other nearby tourist attractions — too fortified to attack. Targeting LGBT people was not part of his motive; allegiance to the Islamic State and a perceived need to retaliate for the U.S. killing of Muslim civilians abroad was.
Evidence demonstrates that he chose Pulse randomly without even knowing it catered to the gay community. As Huffington Post’s Melissa Jeltsen put it, after reporting daily from Salman’s trial, “Everything we’ve heard in court suggests Mateen picked Pulse randomly — not because of animus towards the LGBT community.”
The fact that Mateen was not motivated by hostility to the gay community does not, of course, make his actions any less horrendous. Greenwald says that the outcome of the Salman case is an encouraging anomaly given the hostile climate that Muslims face in the legal system when charged with acts of terrorism.
It is hard to overstate what a rare event this acquittal is. To begin with, the DOJ’s prosecution rested almost exclusively on a confession they got Salman to sign after many hours of detained interrogation on the morning after the attack. That “confession” was not something that Salman wrote herself, but rather one that FBI agents wrote for her based on their claims about what she said during the interrogation (an interrogation that they chose not to record).
Despite all the science and data showing how often the FBI coerces false confessions — by preying on the vulnerabilities and duress of people after a crime is committed (testimony showed that Salman has a low IQ and resides at the high end of suggestibility ratings, and was threatened with the loss of her young son) — it is exceedingly rare for juries to acquit a defendant who signed such a statement.
Yet jurors obviously concluded that the statement the FBI induced her to sign was unreliable. That conclusion was certainly due, in large part, to the fact that the FBI itself concluded that key parts of the “confession” they had her sign — including the claim that she had “cased” Pulse with her husband — turned out to be demonstrably false.
BUT THE SHOCKING RARITY of this verdict extends far beyond the limited issue of coerced false confessions. As someone who has covered the issue of post-9/11 civil liberties erosions going back to the Bush administration, I’ve come to automatically expect that any charges relating to terrorism — especially when lodged against a Muslim defendant — will result in a conviction no matter how weak and manipulative the prosecution’s case is.
Between the pro-prosecution judges who now fill the federal court system, the ease of exploiting American jurors’ anti-Muslim sentiments, and the extremely broad parameters of terrorism laws, the deck is stacked against defendants in terrorism cases — especially Muslim defendants such as Salman.
It is really quite extraordinary that Salman was acquitted and Greenwald hopes that this is a sign that the climate is improving.
Perhaps this case is just an aberration, a byproduct of a sympathetic defendant who was clearly more a victim of her abusive husband than an accomplice with him. But the more optimistic view is that 16 years after the 9/11 attack, some rationality and balance is finally emerging when it comes to the intersection of terrorism fears, security claims, and justice.
The fact that many journalists and others who closely reported on this case saw that the prosecution was so flawed, yet nonetheless fully expected a conviction, highlights the unjust dynamic that has prevailed. Along with celebrating this rare instance where justice has been served by the U.S. judicial system, one should hope that this verdict portends a return of sober reason and a commitment to due process, even when the scary specter of terrorism and Muslim defendants are waved around.
One can only hope that the authorities raising the cry of ‘terrorism!’ is no longer sufficient to panic the public into going along with whatever agenda they have.