5 things to know about the federal trial of Pulse gunman's widow
Noor Salman charged with aiding and abetting, obstruction of justice
ORLANDO, Fla. – The trial is underway for Noor Salman, the widow of the Pulse shooter Omar Mateen, on charges that she allegedly knew what he planned before he carried out the attack on the gay nightclub killing 49 and injuring more than 50 others.
Salman, 31, was indicted by the U.S. Justice Department in January 2017 with aiding and abetting and obstruction of justice. Prosecutors allege she knew about her husband’s plan to orchestrate a mass shooting in Orlando and did not do anything to stop him.
The trial is taking place in downtown Orlando, about 2 miles from the site of the June 12, 2016, shooting, at the U.S. District courthouse.
Because it's in federal court, there are no audio or video feeds to the public of the trial. News 6 reporters will be in the courtroom every day and updating hourly at Clickorlando.com/noorsalmantrial.
Here are some key pieces to the trial to help understand the complicated process.
1. How long will the trial last?
U.S. District Judge Paul Byron said he expects jury selection, which began on March 1, to last about nine days, and opening statements will start on March 12 or 14. The U.S. attorneys said they think arguments will take about three weeks and wrap up the first week of April. The prosecution initially said the trial would last for five weeks.
Byron said there will be no court, after jury selection, on Fridays to allow him to attend to other cases. Court will be in session from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., but Byron has also told multiple jurors in the pool he would accommodate their needs in special cases if they need to be out by a certain time or gone for a day.
2. How the jury selection process works
More than 1,000 potential jurors were sent a questionnaire from the U.S. Districts Clerk of Court's office; from there, around 400 were eliminated. Currently, the prosecution and defense have selected a pool of jurors and Byron is questioning them and trying to whittle down the pool to 60 jurors. That number will then be narrowed down to the final 12 jurors with around six alternates.
Of the 25 potential jurors who have been questioned in the first two days of jury selection, at least seven have had direct connections to Pulse shooting victims or know someone who does.
An orthopedic physician's assistant was excused after revealing he treated 24 survivors and was working in the trauma unit the morning of the shooting. Other jury candidates have been excused after they said they could not put aside their feelings about the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attack or thought they couldn’t handle viewing evidence in the case, which could include video and photos from inside the nightclub.
Attorney and legal analyst Mark O’Mara said the close proximity to Pulse is going to make the defense’s job more difficult.
“It's very frightening for defense and quite honestly the prosecution has to be worried as well because they got to make sure they are not going to get people on this jury that are going to come back to haunt them,” O’Mara said.
O’Mara added that he was surprised that one juror stayed in the pool despite having worked with one of the 49 victims and another wasn’t dismissed even though his daughters went to school with another victim.
“I'm surprised that a couple of them are still on the panel because if they have a connection, a friend, a family a member, they should not be asked to do almost the impossible task of setting aside the tragedy of Pulse and listen to this case,” O’Mara said.
3. How will the U.S. government convince jurors Salman is guilty
As in all cases in the U.S. justice system, it is up to the prosecution to prove that the defendant did what they have been charged with -- in Salman’s case, lying to the FBI and aiding her husband in the provision of materials to carry out an attack on behalf of a terrorist organization. Mateen told 911 operators during the shooting that he was doing it in the name of the Islamic State.
Salman and her defense team are not required to prove that she did not do what she is accused of; in fact, she is not even required to offer any evidence in her own defense or testify. The jury must only consider if the federal attorneys have proven their case well enough that there is no doubt. If the jury panelists have any doubt she did it, they cannot determine she is guilty.
Most of the trial will focus on proving the harsher charge of aiding and abetting.
It’s not enough that Salman was Mateen’s wife and in the same home while he planned the attack. Prosecutors must prove that she acted in a way that would help her husband commit the crime --in this case, by not telling authorities about his plans, accompanying him on his target location scouting trips and to buy ammunition.
The most damning statements made about Salman’s knowledge of her husband’s plans are her own to the FBI.
After first telling FBI agents on June 12, 2016, that she didn’t know what Mateen was going to do the night he left their Fort Pierce condominium, she later tells them in a written statement, “I knew when he left the house he was going to Orlando to attack the Pulse nightclub” and apologizes for lying.
Based on documents made public, her defense team plans to bring in a psychologist who specializes in false testimony to try to knock down this statement.
4. The job of Salman's defense team
Salman is not required to prove she did not assist her husband, or lie to authorities, but her defense team will try to do as much as they can to place doubt in the jurors’ minds that she did what is alleged.
The defense expert witness, psychologist Dr. Bruce Frumkin, who specializes in false testimony, will try to counter the written statements she made to the FBI.
It’s likely he will testify that the statements she made to FBI agents on June 12 were not true or were coerced.
Salman’s lead defense attorney Charles Swift said his client was a domestic violence victim in fear of her life, and her son’s, if she spoke out about Mateen’s behavior. Swift has also said Salman has post-traumatic stress disorder because of years of physical and mental abuse.
The defense team has another expert who will likely discuss the behavior of domestic violence victims.
5. The outcome: What survivors, victim families and Orlando leaders say they want
The trial will be very emotional for the Orlando community and all the families across the country affected. The government will have to show evidence proving the attack happened, which could include graphic video and photos.
On the first day of jury selection, several of the 49 victims’ family members were in court, as well as Pulse owner Barbara Poma.
"If she's found guilty, there will be justice. Her having to live a lifetime behind bars -- it's justice,” said Christine Leinonen, whose son, Christopher, was killed.
Other families say they want answers. Cory Connell’s mother, Tara Connell, said she wants to know what happened to her son in the moments leading up to his death.
Orlando and state leaders said they are more concerned for victims’ families and friends than the outcome of the case.
If Salman is convicted, she could face life in prison.
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