Jury selection begins Thursday in the trial of Noor Salman, the widow of the Pulse nightclub shooter.
Salman’s husband, Omar Mateen, killed 49 people and injured dozens more in a mass shooting on Latin night at the gay club in Orlando, Fla., in 2016. Mateen declared support for ISIS before he was killed in a shootout with law enforcement, ending his three-hour rampage.
Salman faces charges of aiding and abetting terrorism and obstruction of justice.
According to Karen Greenberg, the director of the Center on National Security at Fordham University Law School, one of the biggest challenges facing the jurors will be separating the shooter’s actions from Salman’s.
“You really want to address the tremendous tragedy and injustice that was visited upon Orlando’s people by this crime,” Greenberg says. “To have somebody in custody who is a proxy defendant is something you definitely want to avoid.”
The federal judge presiding over the case denied a change of venue request, so the trial will take place in a courthouse just 2 miles from Pulse. In another setback for the defense, the judge also ruled last week that Salman’s statement to FBI agents just hours after the attack will be admissible at trial.
“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,” she wrote.
Salman told the agents that she knew about her husband’s plans and that when he left the house that day, she understood he was on his way to Pulse.
Her attorneys say that Salman was not given proper Miranda warnings before she made the statement and that she was not aware of her husband’s plans for the shooting. Salman has denied any involvement in the massacre.
Charles Rose, a trial advocacy expert at Stetson University, says prosecutors will have to lay out her involvement in her husband’s radicalization: “How it happened, when it happened, whether the wife knew or must have known about it.”
Rose expects prosecutors to argue that Salman “assisted him in accomplishing his goals as a radicalized terrorist.”
Salman has said she is a victim of domestic violence. Rose says the defense may argue the abuse left her with few choices.
“It’s not that she intended to participate with him,” Rose says. “It’s that she was forced to be present when he was planning the activity because of the abusive nature of their relationship, that if she hadn’t chosen to be present that she would have suffered such abuse that she had to make a survival choice.”
But Mia Bloom, a terrorism expert at Georgia State University, says that argument doesn’t absolve Salman of responsibility to stop further violence.
“There is no amount of trauma that can prevent you from picking up the phone when the person is not in the same room and they’re not in the same city and they’re en route and alerting the police,” she says. “Lives could have been saved.”
Greenberg says that if Salman is convicted, the case will send an important message.
“If you think somebody is about to be involved in a terrorist attack or any kind of mass murder and they have guns and they’ve said things that are worrisome, you need to step away from that or report it.”
Mental health providers and translators will be at the courthouse to support family members and survivors watching a video feed of the proceedings in a private courtroom.
Laly Santiago-Leon will be one of those watching. Her cousin Luis Daniel Wilson-Leon was killed in the shooting. Everyone called him Dani.
“I just miss him so much,” she says. “We just confided in one another about everything.”
Santiago-Leon has asked for the opportunity to testify or submit an open letter to the court. She says she wants to look the defendant in the eye and try to explain what she lost.
The trial is expected to last several weeks. If convicted, Noor Salman could face life in prison.