The wife of Omar Mateen, who killed 49 people and wounded more than 50 in Orlando nearly two years ago, was acquitted Friday on charges of aiding and abetting her husband in the attack and also of obstructing the FBI’s investigation into it.
After lengthy deliberation, the federal court jury decided this 31-year-old self-described battered woman with an IQ of 84 did not know of the Pulse nightclub massacre before it happened. She had faced a life sentence.
That Salman faced a criminal trial at all stands in contrast to another murderous recent shooting: The girlfriend of Stephen Paddock, who killed 59 and wounded more than 500 people in Las Vegas six months ago, faced no charges, even though her fingerprints were on the ammunition used in the deadliest American shooting in modern history.
Luckily, the jury found Salman not guilty. Prosecutors offered no evidence Mateen, who had claimed ties to radical Islamist groups, would have confided in Salman, given he had carried on multiple extramarital affairs without her consent or knowledge. Nor did Salman have access to a shared bank account that would have tipped her off. Court documents reveal Mateen beat Salman while pregnant, raped her and threatened to kill her.
Her signature appeared to be a result of extreme duress placed on a battered wife and mother shortly after learning of her husband’s mass murder and death. It is logical to assume the FBI re-traumatized an already vulnerable, traumatized domestic violence survivor.
Such overreach is not unique. The risk of ill-considered criminal charges is an undeniable reality for minority groups and has been throughout history.
In 2004, Brandon Mayfield — a Portland attorney, former Army lieutenant and convert to Islam — was arrested as a material witness in conjunction with the Madrid bombings, which had killed 191. After receiving partial fingerprint evidence from Interpol, the FBI concluded Mayfield’s prints from his Army commission and from an arrest as a teenager were a match. However, Spanish law enforcement officials arrived at a different conclusion and reported to the FBI that the match was conclusively negative.
The FBI failed to include this vital information in its court affidavits in support of an arrest warrant. Ultimately, a district court judge threw out the case, and the government paid $2 million in a settlement with Mayfield and issued a formal apology for the violation of his civil rights.
In 2005, 10th-grader Adama Bah was arrested, interrogated, fingerprinted and held for six weeks in Pennsylvania. The government claimed she was an imminent security threat and a potential suicide bomber. To date, no evidence has been provided to substantiate this claim.
In 2008, five directors of the charitable nonprofit Holy Land Foundation, which provided humanitarian relief in Palestine, were convicted of material support for terrorism after federal prosecutors tried them in court a second time, after the first trial ended in mistrial. Miko Peled, in his “Injustice: The Story of the Holy Land Foundation Five,” details the miscarriage of justice, including the government’s use of “anonymous experts” in the case.
In 2015, 14-year-old Ahmed Mohamed was handcuffed, arrested and interrogated outside the presence of his parents for an hour and a half for creating a hoax bomb, after he showed his teacher a clock he had made out of a large pencil case. The Irving, Tex., police dropped the charges when they determined the clock Mohamed built was just a clock. But Police Chief Larry Boyd stated, “We live in an age where you can’t take things like that to school. Of course, we’ve seen across our country horrific things happen, so we have to err on the side of caution.”
Prosecutorial overreach and FBI misconduct is not limited to racial or religious profiling. It’s also been used to intimidate activists, from the letter the FBI sent the Martin Luther King Jr. in 1963 in an attempt to make him commit suicide and the 1972 federal prosecution of black civil rights activist Angela Davis, to the more recent prosecution of Sami Al-Arian. Recent investigative reports have also uncovered the FBI tracking Black Lives Matter and Standing Rock activists for seemingly no other reason than their political views.
Certainly, a thorough investigation of any mass shooting requires interviewing family members, spouses and friends of the perpetrator to determine potential culpability and collusion. But investigating potential ties is one thing; creating them is different.
It was heartening to see more than 100 different advocacy organizations come together to issue a statement opposing Salman’s prosecution: “Our organizations work for gender and reproductive justice, LGBTQ justice, racial and economic justice, disability justice, civil rights and human rights in different communities across the United States. We share the grief and pain for those whose lives were lost, those who survived and their loved ones and communities. And, we oppose this prosecution, which scapegoats Ms. Salman in the quest to ensure that someone pay the price for Mateen’s actions. We stand with Noor Salman, a mother and survivor of domestic violence.”
Collectively, we must continue to demand a criminal justice system that uses its resources responsibly and does not criminalize people based on the color of their skin, their political activism, their religious beliefs or to whom they were married. Anything short of this is a tacit approval of political prosecutions. The jury understood this and applied the law accordingly.
Minority communities have consistently been relegated to a separate criminal justice system, one which assumes guilt, regardless of how attenuated. As Langston Hughes wrote: “That Justice is a blind goddess/ Is a thing to which we blacks are wise: Her bandage hides two festering sores/ That once perhaps were eyes.”