The confession cut through the fog of burying victims and mourning in Orlando.
As locals struggled to understand how a gunman had murdered 49 of their family members, friends and neighbors at the gay nightclub Pulse, outside of the city, national media outlets reported a shocking revelation – someone could have prevented this.
At least two days after the massacre, anonymous law enforcement sources told Fox News, the Los Angeles Times, CBS News and other news gatherers that Omar Mateen and his widow, Noor Salman, had cased the Pulse site before the attack. After her husband had been killed in a shootout with police, Salman confessed to FBI agents that she drove him to purchase ammunition for the slaughter and knew of his plans to commit a mass murder at the club, they reported. On June 15, 2016, three days after the attack, the New York Post plastered Salman's face on its cover with the dramatic headline, "She could have saved them all. Killer's wife knew – but did nothing."
"ISIS-loving Omar Mateen’s wife knew he was plotting a massacre at an Orlando gay nightclub but didn’t notify authorities," the article claimed. "She was so attuned to his desire for mass bloodshed that she even tried to talk him out of the attack."
Except none of that was true.
Almost two years after the attack, evidence in Salman's trial proved many of the incriminating statements she told the FBI in her alleged confession could not have possibly happened. Two weeks ago, a federal jury in Orlando found her not guilty of aiding and abetting her husband in his support of a terrorist organization and not guilty of obstruction of justice after prosecutors accused her of lying to FBI agents during their investigation.
After ingesting fiction for so long, it was hard to swallow the verdict in Orlando. Even harder still was trying to understand why the government had charged Salman in the first place. The prosecution's case against Salman hinged on an alleged confession with enough holes to seem coerced. They never recorded her, despite FBI agents having the capability to do so. During the trial, an FBI agent let slip a damning piece of information – his superiors at the FBI knew within days after the attack that it was "highly unlikely" Mateen or Salman ever scouted Pulse before the attack, according to cellphone location data. The facts contradicted a significant part of Salman's statements – and yet, anonymous law enforcement officials leaked it to the media. Last March, federal prosecutors argued that a judge should revoke Salman's bail because her confession to casing Pulse meant she was a danger to society – a lie that helped keep the 31-year-old in a lonely jail cell for over a year, away from her son. If convicted, Salman could have faced life in prison.
Mateen, the one person most responsible for what happened on June 12, would never face a jury. But in the zealous quest to seek justice for the lives taken at Pulse, Salman stood as a perfect proxy for her husband's sins – even if she was a survivor of his violent abuse.