ORLANDO, Fla. — Noor Salman looked up as the prosecutor directed the jury’s attention to a copy of her 2011 marriage certificate. There, on the screen, was her looping signature, right next to Omar Mateen’s. Proof she wed a killer.
The 31-year-old widow shivered and hiked a purple blanket up to her neck, glancing over at her team of defense attorneys for reassurance. They often soothed her in court with physical touch, squeezing her shoulder or patting her arm. Her fear was palpable.
Later, Salman watched herself on the same screen, testing perfumes at Victoria’s Secret. In the security camera footage shown to the jury, she sniffed a paper strip, then passed it to her husband for his thoughts. He must have agreed; they left with a shiny pink bag.
Three days after that shopping trip, Mateen slaughtered 49 people inside Pulse nightclub in Orlando. In calls with police from the scene, he declared allegiance to ISIS and said he acted to avenge U.S. airstrikes in Syria and Iraq. At the time, it was the worst mass shooting in modern U.S. history. Mateen was killed during the attack.
While her husband was committing mass murder, Salman was in her pajamas, asleep in their home in Fort Pierce, Florida. Seven months later, she was charged with aiding and abetting her husband and obstructing justice for allegedly lying to the FBI. Prosecutors claimed that Salman helped her husband scout potential locations for the attack, created a cover story for him and participated in unusual spending.
The seemingly ordinary excursion to a mall store was now center stage in a federal terrorism trial. In the days leading up to the shooting, Mateen spent thousands of dollars on Salman, buying her clothes and jewelry, including a diamond ring. Prosecutors suggested she got the gifts in exchange for agreeing to help him carry out his heinous plan.
There was zero evidence that Salman was radicalized herself, they admitted. Instead, they argued that she was content to trade her husband – the sole provider for her and her 3-year-old son – for baubles and designer wear.
Salman, who did not testify in the trial herself, pleaded not guilty, and maintained through her lawyers that she had no knowledge of Mateen’s plans. When he began showering her with presents in the weeks before the massacre, Salman was optimistic about their future, her lawyers said, and believed it was a sign her husband – a brutish, abusive man who only permitted her a $20 allowance each week – was changing.
For the 49 families of the victims, the trial was an opportunity for closure. And yet, they didn’t get to see the man that took their loved one’s lives. Instead, they got his wife.
In courtroom sketches, Salman resembled a Disney princess — oversized eyes, a button nose and lustrous, thick hair. But in person, sitting in the courtroom here in downtown Orlando just two miles from the club where the massacre took place, she was pale with deep, dark circles under her eyes. Her clothes were ill-fitting, she wore no visible makeup, and her hair was pulled back into a simple ponytail.
By the time of the trial, Salman had spent 14 months in jail, mostly in solitude. Each day, she was allowed a single phone call to her son, but that was it. She missed holding him and hugging him, her family said.
During opening statements, Salman’s lawyer said she had been eagerly awaiting her day in court. After her arrest, rumors and speculations about her abounded and settled in like a rot. She drove him to the club that night. She was a member of ISIS. She fled the country after the attack. All were untrue.
Finally, in court, she got to set the record straight.
Perpetrator Or Victim?
Outside the federal courthouse, on a lunch break from the trial, Salman’s cousin was seething. Susan Adieh, didn’t recognize the one-dimensional cliched caricature the prosecution had described, and she didn’t understand why Salman was on trial. The wives of other terrorists and mass killers never faced charges. She wondered if her family’s religion played a role, even though Salman was not religious.
After all, they were Muslim.
Adieh, 59, who owns several convenience stores in Mississippi, has known Salman since she was born. She attended every day of the trial, sitting a few rows behind her, along with Salman’s uncles and other cousins. Salman’s father died in 2012, and her mother, who currently takes care of Salman’s young son in California, couldn’t attend the trial because of health issues. In her absence, Adieh stepped up as a momma bear figure, advocating on behalf of her cousin in interviews with the press.
Susan Clary, the family spokesperson, said that many other relatives wanted to come to support Salman, but they were afraid. As Muslim Americans, they worried about being associated with the terrorism case; their jobs could be at stake.
In court, Adieh nodded along with Salman’s defense attorneys when they made a point she liked and scowled when the prosecutors said something she found objectionable. Mostly, she looked at the back of Salman’s head. A few times, Salman turned around to flash Adieh a quick, nervous wave and a tight smile before her face returned to its standard sober expression.
As a child, Adieh said, Salman would let other kids take her toys rather than start a fight.
“She has no toughness in her,” she said. “She has a good heart. That’s her problem.”
Immediately after the Pulse shooting, Adieh flew to Florida to be with Salman. With approval from the FBI, Adieh brought Salman and her son back home to Mississippi. For four months, she cared for her traumatized cousin. Salman, an American-born daughter of Palestinian immigrants, struggled with the enormity of the destruction her husband had caused — 49 lives snuffed out in an instant — and worried how she and her son would survive in his infamous shadow, her cousin said.
While Salman was married to Mateen, she didn’t visit or talk much to her family. They said he discouraged it. But in Mississippi, she slowly told them everything. Mateen was violently abusive, she said: He beat her and forced her to have sex against her will. He controlled what money she spent, and even dictated what she was allowed to eat.
Salman, a housewife with a young child, had few options. She didn’t have money of her own, as she wasn’t employed. She didn’t have a driver’s license, and had to ask Mateen for a ride when she wanted to go to the supermarket or run an errand at the post office. She lacked a support system in Florida outside Mateen’s family, since most of her family was in California.
“I asked her, ‘Why didn’t you call me?’” Adieh recalled, a pained expression crossing her face. “She was too afraid,” she said. Salman had told her that Mateen threatened to kill her and take away her son.
The abuse that Salman said she survived was all-too familiar to Sitora Yusufiy, Mateen’s first wife. She told HuffPost that during her short marriage to Mateen in 2009, he hit her, confiscated her paychecks, and told her when she could and could not leave the house. He would resort to violence without a thought.
“Living with him, I know the situation she was in,” she said, referring to Salman. “I know she had no rights, and no knowledge of what he was doing. He would lie to me and hide many things behind my back.”
Had Yusufiy stayed married to Mateen, “that could very easily have been me,” she said.
After Salman was arrested and taken into custody, Jacquelyn Campbell, a nurse and leading expert on domestic violence in the U.S, evaluated her at the request of Salman’s defense attorneys. Campbell is known for developing a tool used to determine if an abused woman is at risk of being killed by her intimate partner.
Based on Salman’s responses to questions, she was in the “extreme danger range” during her marriage to Mateen – the highest possible level. Salman wrote in the assessment that Mateen strangled her, beat her while she was pregnant, and controlled most of her daily activities.
To the question “Do you believe he is capable of killing you?” Salman replied, “yes.”
It was a typical Saturday night for Salman on June 11, 2016. Her husband told her he was going out with his friend Nemo, and said he’d be home later.
After he left, her mother-in-law called, inviting them to come to the mosque for dinner. Salman didn’t want to go; it was hot and she didn’t want to have to wear the hijab, she complained to a friend in a call at the time. She texted Mateen, asking him to tell his mom they weren’t coming.
“If ur mom calls say nimo invited you out and noor wants to stay home,” she wrote, misspelling Mateen’s friend’s nickname. This text would later be used as evidence for the crime of aiding and abetting. The prosecution said what she wrote was a cover story that Salman concocted to help her husband avoid suspicion from his parents.
But for Salman, she just wanted to have a quiet night with her son, according to the defense. She took him to Applebee’s for dinner and then to Walmart to pick up a Father’s Day present for Mateen. At home, after she put her son to sleep, she browsed for leather biker jackets on her phone and waited for her husband to come home.
He never did.
By 2:40 a.m., she tried calling, but there was no answer. Then she texted Mateen: “Habibi, where are you?” she wrote, using an Arabic term of endearment. She tried him again two hours later, reminding him that he had work in the morning.
Mateen wrote back at 4:28 a.m., asking her if she’d heard what happened. At that moment, he was holed up in a bathroom with hostages. Several minutes later, he would Google “how to remove bullet lodged in barrel?” His rifle had jammed. Within the hour he’d be dead, shot by the police.
“???” she answered. “What happened? !” She tried to call again, but he didn’t pick up.
Just minutes after she sent her husband that text, police were at her door, ordering her out of the house. She picked up her son and came outside. The police didn’t tell her why they were there; they asked her to wait in the back of a squad car while they searched her home. Then, she was whisked to the FBI headquarters in Fort Pierce for questioning.
She would spend the next 11 hours with law enforcement, without a lawyer.
FBI agents were immediately suspicious of her. She was strangely calm and passive, they testified, not asking a lot of questions about her predicament. The agents put her and her son in a large conference room, and assigned a female FBI agent to play with the child while Salman was questioned. After serving them McDonald’s hotcakes and hash browns for breakfast, FBI agents notified her that her husband was dead.
Her reaction to that news concerned them, too, they said. One agent claimed Salman didn’t cry, although another agent recalled her crying for five minutes straight, a contradiction that was never explained. Prosecutors described her as “staged and rehearsed.”
After hearing how Salman behaved at FBI headquarters that night, Campbell, the domestic violence expert, said it was not that unusual. Abuse victims, under pressure, often develop a flat affect and come off as disengaged. It’s a survival mechanism, she explained.
“When you are terrified of someone, you try not to be reactive to anything or let any of your feelings show,” she said. “You just try to obey and do whatever you think will please that person, or at least make them not hurt you.”
For hours and hours, FBI agents interrogated her, choosing not to film or record any of her statements. When asked in court about why the FBI did not record the interview of a potential suspect in a high-profile terrorist case, an agent said, “I honestly never thought about it. It never crossed my mind.”
At some point, getting nowhere with Salman, the FBI brought in a polygraph examiner and sent her son home with a relative.
On the stand, Special Agent Ricardo Enriquez described his interrogation of Salman. He falsely told her that he was sent by then-FBI Director James Comey, to impress upon her the gravity of the situation, he said. He asked her to sign a consent to be polygraphed, though he never used it. Instead, he just talked to her.
He asked her a series of questions about her husband and what she might have known about the attack. She told him she knew nothing, but over the next four and a half hours, Enriquez kept insisting that she knew more than she was letting on. He said that if she lied during the interview, he didn’t know what would happen to her son.
Salman was exhausted, having barely slept the night before – and in shock, her family and lawyers said. By the time she left FBI headquarters late in the afternoon, she had allegedly confessed to knowing about her husband’s plans.
Her statement, which was handwritten by Enriquez because she was too nervous to do it herself, claimed she knew Mateen was headed to Pulse that night to commit an attack, that she’d seen him look at the club’s website, and that they’d cased Pulse together the week before, driving around the venue slowly with the windows down.
“That’s what she said, and that’s what I wrote down,” Enriquez said.
But much of what she confessed to was impossible. Salman had never been in the vicinity of Pulse, according to cell phone and GPS data. Neither had Mateen. And none of their computers or phones showed a record of accessing Pulse’s website. The claims were simply untrue.
The defense said there was no way Salman knew where Mateen was headed that night because he didn’t know himself.
Pulse wasn’t actually Mateen’s intended target that night. He first drove to Disney Springs, a hub of shops and restaurants at Disney World, and found security to be tight. He then Googled “downtown orlando nightclubs” and appeared to pick the gay club at random. Despite initial speculation based on the location of the shooting, investigators found nothing to suggest he was motivated by homophobia.
But why would an innocent person confess to something she didn’t do?
Bruce Frumkin, a forensic psychologist who evaluated Salman with a series of personality tests, explained to the jury that people with certain traits – like mental illness, low intelligence and high rates of suggestibility ― may end up saying what the police want to hear. People who’ve been interviewed for long periods of time or have been deprived of sleep are particularly vulnerable to making false statements under pressure, he said.
In his professional opinion, Salman was “at much higher risk than the average person” to give a false confession, because of her extremely suggestible and submissive personality, and her low average IQ of 84, he testified.
Waiting To Find Out Her Fate
Inside the courtroom, Salman clutched a small resin guardian angel in her hand. It was too small to be seen by the jury or the judge. When testimony was painful to listen to, she squeezed it. The angel helped to ground her, her family spokesperson said.
Much of the presented evidence was graphic and stomach-churning. Salman could hardly watch as they played the video of the actual slaughter. There was her husband on the screen, mowing down all those innocent people. She turned her head away and cried, balling tissues in her fist.
For six days, Salman listened as prosecutors picked apart her life, depicting her as manipulative, materialistic and cruel. After prosecutors rested their case, they dropped a bombshell: Mateen’s father was an FBI informant up until the massacre, they said, and was under criminal investigation himself.
Upon learning this, Salman’s lawyers asked U.S. District Judge Paul Byron to toss the case, arguing that their entire defense strategy would have been different if they had known. He denied the request.
The defense’s case took just a day and a half. Salman’s lawyers called her friends and family to the stand to tell the jury what kind of person she was. One friend began crying when she saw Salman. She described how Salman helped her when she was struggling to care for an infant and study for school at the same time.
“She would offer to help me clean or cook, or give the bottle so I could concentrate on my studies,” she said. When asked if Salman was peaceful, she agreed vehemently.
“Nothing harmful would come out of her,” she added.
The defense also called two female witnesses who said they had romantic relationships with Mateen while he was married to Salman. He was a liar, her lawyers said, and he kept up a secret life. Why on earth would he tell his wife of his plans to commit terror?
On the very last day of trial, over 80 domestic violence and civil rights groups released a statement in support of Salman, saying the prosecution against her was “rooted in gendered Islamophobia and patriarchy.”
“She is being prosecuted under the guise of guilt by association as a Muslim woman married to a Muslim man who committed mass violence,” they wrote.
But whether the jury saw it that way is yet to be determined. They began deliberations on Wednesday afternoon. Salman faces up to life in prison if convicted.
Her family said the truth came out in the trial, and they have faith in the jury.
In closing arguments, Salman’s lawyer rejected the government’s depiction of Salman as diabolical and greedy, arguing that she didn’t know what her husband was planning, and she certainly didn’t help.
She was a “devoted mother. Not a monster,” her lawyer said.
She just married one.
Update: March 30 ― After more than 12 hours of deliberation, a jury found Salman not guilty on all charges related to her husband’s attack. She walked free that day.