The trial of jihadi killer Omar Mateen’s wife Noor Salman is still in the jury selection phase, but documents filed with the court have challenged some assumptions about the Pulse nightclub massacre, most notably the idea that Mateen targeted the Orlando, Florida, club because it catered to gay patrons.
Instead, a motion by the defense claims that Mateen scouted several other sites first and settled on the Pulse because it had weak security.
Evidence provided by the defense—including cell tower triangulation of the location of Mateen’s cell phone, credit card transactions, and logs of his Google searches—indicates that the killer visited the Disney Springs shopping and entertainment area first. While it would have provided a target-rich environment for his ISIS-inspired murder spree, Disney Springs has a substantial presence of uniformed security officers.
Mateen turned up near Disneyworld’s Epcot Center next, but would likely have concluded that it also had too much security to make a good target. He conducted a Google search for “downtown Orlando nightclubs” and seemed interested in a club called EVE first, but the defense argues that he was once again turned away by a visible security presence, including searches of patrons at the front door.
The Pulse club was his second choice but, even so, the defense brief notes that he appears to have returned to EVE first before settling on Pulse. He arrived there at about 2:00 a.m. and commenced his attack.
The defense is keenly interested in the precise sequence of events because Salman has argued that she was not aware of Mateen’s exact plans, and therefore could not have warned the authorities. If the court accepts that Mateen scouted several targets and chose the Pulse less than half an hour before opening fire, Salman’s case will be easier to prove to a jury. The defense also wants to prevent prosecutors from telling the jury that Mateen’s choice of target was heavily influenced by animosity toward gays.
One tricky detail is that Salman herself told the authorities shortly after the massacre that Mateen told her he would attack the club two days beforehand. The defense invoked expert testimony that no evidence of Mateen checking out the Pulse online before the day of the attack could be found, creating the impression that Salman’s statements to the police were inaccurate, perhaps made in panic.
Writing at the Intercept, Glenn Greenwald accuses local prosecutors of a “highly unusual and troubling” decision to bring a weak case against Noor Salman largely to “feed, and exploit, community outrage that demands someone should be punished for this massacre.” He links this to the persistent narrative that Mateen’s massacre was an anti-gay hate crime, despite a lack of evidence that he knew the Pulse was a gay nightclub:
By repeatedly emphasizing this anti-gay motive, U.S. media reports had the effect, if not the intent, of obscuring what appears to have been Mateen’s overriding, arguably exclusive motive: a desire for retribution and deterrence toward U.S. violence in Muslim countries. This highly dubious “anti-gay” storyline has also created a virtually unanimous climate in Orlando’s community that is demanding the punishment of anyone remotely connected to Mateen, a climate prosecutors have seized on to bring highly unusual, and very questionable, felony charges against Mateen’s wife that could send her to prison for decades despite scant evidence of her guilt.
Greenwald adds, as Noor Salman’s defense surely will, that it is interesting Mateen was able to slaughter 49 people at a gay nightclub without uttering a single derogatory remark about homosexuals, as far as anyone has documented or testified. He did complain at great length about American military action in the Middle East, however, both before and during the attack.
Legal analysts predict the defense will have difficulty convincing the judge to block all evidence that Salman knew Mateen was planning some kind of attack, so arguing that she had no idea where he was going seems like their best bet. The defense might also suggest that Salman feared Mateen could harm her or the couple’s three-year-old son if she interfered with his plans.
The New York Times notes some other potential complications for Salman’s defense: she has indicated she was aware he was watching jihadist videos; she joined him in a spending spree before the attack in which they spent more money than he made in a year; she signed up as a beneficiary who could access his bank account if he died; she is known to have accompanied him on a trip to buy ammunition at Walmart; and she directly stated she wished she could “go back and tell his family and the police what he was going to do” during her F.B.I. lie detector test. Her attorneys argue she only made that statement because “she thought her son would be taken away from her and given to a Christian family if she wasn’t truthful.”
One interesting point of contention between prosecution and defense is that, on the night of the Pulse attack, Salman told Mateen’s mother that he was out having dinner with a friend from Baltimore. The prosecution portrays this as Salman lying to Mateen’s family to give him a cover story while he perpetrated his massacre, while the defense argues that Salman really did believe Mateen was out to dinner with his old friend, who has said he lied to her in the past to help Mateen cheat on her.
Reports on Thursday indicated that some jurors have been dismissed because they said they were convinced Salman had foreknowledge of Mateen’s attack and was at least partially responsible for the massacre. Pursuant to Greenwald’s point, one juror said she had friends in the Orlando gay community and could not remain impartial because it was targeted.
The Orlando Sentinel reports that one woman who was kept in the jury pool said she “believed Muslim women weren’t afforded the same rights as men” and wondered if Mateen might have been “controlling” his wife, but she accepted it was also possible Salman did not know what her husband was planning.