ORLANDO — The way prosecutors tell it, Noor Salman was a willing and active participant in her husband’s shooting and killing of 49 people in the name of the Islamic State at a nightclub here two years ago, and she essentially admitted as much.
By defense attorneys’ account, she was an innocent dupe of her monstrous husband, and she signed her name to untruths only after a coercive interview with the FBI.
Jurors here will have to decide over the next several weeks which portrait of Salman they believe. On Wednesday morning, prosecutors and defense attorneys launched their opening salvos, laying out the evidence they will present at Salman’s trial about what level of culpability she bears in the June 2016 shooting at Orlando’s Pulse nightclub.
Salman, 31, was arrested in January 2017 — several months after the shooting — and charged with aiding and abetting her husband’s support of terrorism and obstructing law enforcement’s investigation of the incident. Salman’s husband, Omar Mateen, who carried out the attack and pledged allegiance to the Islamic State on a 911 call during the shooting, was fatally shot by police responding to the massacre.
Salman was not there that night. But prosecutors say Salman knew that the attack was imminent and that she helped her husband create a cover story to use in case his mother asked him to come home when he was planning to carry out the attack. They say she also helped him case other possible locations and drove with him to purchase ammunition — and ultimately admitted her knowledge to the FBI.
“She knew he was a radical and a terrorist, someone who had been talking about jihad for years,” federal prosecutor James Mandolfo said in his opening statement Wednesday. He said Salman’s answers to investigators after investigators informed her that Mateen had died “sounded staged and rehearsed.”
Salman has said publicly that she was “unaware of everything” and that her husband abused her. Defense attorneys say that the statements she made to law enforcement in the wake of the massacre are unreliable and that prosecutors are misinterpreting the texts that they claim show her talking about a cover story.
Defense attorney Linda Moreno argued in court Wednesday that Salman — whose IQ tested at 84 — was particularly susceptible to the FBI’s aggressive tactics and that after an 11-hour interview that was not recorded, she signed a statement that contained falsehoods.
“She denied any knowledge for several hours, but the agents didn’t accept that,” Moreno said.
Moreno said Salman and Mateen met online and were married within months, and that Mateen cheated on her almost immediately. She said Salman was “not Mateen’s partner, she was not his peer and she certainly was not his confidante.”
“We are turning to this stricken community of Orlando for justice,” Moreno said, telling the local jurors, “You understand especially, to honor the dead and respect the living, you must arrive at the truth.”
Testimony began Monday with accounts of witnesses and police who were at the club during the shooting or interacted with Mateen. The dispatcher who took Mateen’s 911 call described listening as the gunman pledged allegiance to the Islamic State. A local TV news producer said he received a similar call from Mateen, saying: “It’s me. I’m the shooter. I did it for ISIS. I did it for the Islamic State.”
Bobby Rodriguez, who was at Pulse with a friend, said she was in a restroom stall when the shooting began, so she threw herself onto the toilet seat and picked up her feet. She said her friend joined her in the stall and she could hear people screaming and moaning. One person who had been shot, she said, crawled into her stall.
“I couldn’t do anything but think about myself,” she said. “I couldn’t help him because I had to help myself.”
Rodriguez said she figured she would die, so she called her mother to tell her she loved her. “I thought it would be my last thing,” she said. At some point, she said, the shooter came into the bathroom, talking of bombs and a sniper.
She said that a friend in another stall screamed that his gun had jammed but that “when everyone tried to make an exit, that’s when he started shooting the gun.” She said she eventually crawled out a hole in the wall blasted by police.
Adam Gruler, an off-duty Orlando police officer who was working a security job there that night, described for jurors how he shot at Mateen after seeing the gunman aim at people running from the club. Gruler said he missed and Mateen went back inside.
“There was blood everywhere,” Gruler said. “We were having to step over bodies, check people to see if they were still alive.”
The case is likely to come down to how jurors view a critical interview that the FBI conducted with Salman not long after the shooting and how they interpret purchases she made and messages she sent before the incident.
By the government’s telling, Salman wrote during an FBI interview, “I am sorry for what happened. I wish I’d go back and tell his family and the police what he was going to do,” and she told an agent she “knew on Saturday when Omar left the house at about 5 pm that this was the time that he was going to do something bad.”
Prosecutors say that Salman was added as a death beneficiary to her husband’s bank account just two weeks before the attack and that, in the period that followed, she and Mateen ran up credit card charges and cash withdrawals totaling more than $30,000 — what Mateen made in a year. They say she also sent her husband a text message on the eve of the attack seeming to tell him he should lie to his mother about where he was.
“If ur mom calls say nimo invited you out and noor wants to stay home,” the text said.
Defense attorneys argue that the text is being misinterpreted and that Salman was simply confirming what her husband had told her before leaving home that night — that he was going to visit a friend who went by the name Nemo. They say Mateen often tried to cheat on his wife, using Nemo to provide him cover for what he was doing.
Defense attorneys will also show frantic texts from Salman to her husband on the morning the shooting occurred, asking him, among other things, “What happened?!”As for the purchases, defense attorneys have indicated they will present evidence that Salman purchased a Father’s Day gift and that Mateen purchased airline tickets for the family to travel home to California. Father’s Day and the trip were to occur after the attack.
Zapotosky reported from Washington.