We wanted answers about Pulse. Instead, we were fed lies about Noor Salman 

Corrupted Justice

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click to enlarge FBI Special Agent Ricardo Enriquez - ILLUSTRATION BY THOMAS “THOR” THORSPECKEN
  • Illustration by Thomas “Thor” Thorspecken
  • FBI Special Agent Ricardo Enriquez

Noor Salman nearly broke her attorney’s hand as she waited for a verdict late last March.

Fritz Scheller says she was clutching his hands as the jury came out to announce their decision. When the "not guilty" verdict was read, Salman buried her face in Scheller’s shoulder as her family sobbed and hugged tightly. After the jury left the room, she hugged her tearful attorneys Charles Swift and Linda Moreno, both of whom had stood by her side in the days after the attack. None of them had been paid to defend her – Swift is the director the Constitutional Law Center for Muslims in America, which provides pro bono legal representation.

After being found not guilty, Moreno says the first thing Salman did was thank them, then ask when she could talk to her son, now 5 years old. During her time in jail, mother and child spoke on the phone every day.

"It’s disgraceful what Noor Salman went through," Moreno says. "It’s heartbreaking that she will have to spend the rest of her life along with her son to recover from this nightmare."

In front of the press, Moreno called the Orlando jury members the "last heroes of Pulse."

"Noor is so grateful," Moreno said. "[The jury] didn’t make Noor Salman the last victim (of Omar Mateen)."

In many ways, the case against Salman wasn’t different from other criminalized abuse survivors, despite the added element of alleged terrorism.

Most incarcerated women have experienced some form of domestic violence or sexual assault, says Soniya Munshi, a member of INCITE!, a national collective of radical feminists of color working to end violence against women, gender non-conforming people and trans people of color. Abuse survivors can be criminalized for a number of reasons – sometimes even for protecting themselves from a violent partner, like in the case of Marissa Alexander, a Jacksonville woman was jailed for firing a warning shot at her abusive husband.

"The criminal legal system doesn’t account for the complexity of what they’re doing to survive," Munshi says. "The charges brought against Noor show a deep misunderstanding of the experience of some domestic violence survivors."

Munshi points out the moment when prosecutors interpreted Salman’s texts to Mateen as her giving him a cover story – with context, the same texts could be interpreted as Salman communicating proactively with her husband to avoid his future abuse.

"It’s so unfair that there’s a kind of scrutiny for survivors to perform a certain way," she says. "It wouldn’t be unusual for Noor to feel love toward him at the time. Most domestic violence survivors when asked about abusive relationships, they don’t want to leave that person – they just want the abuse to stop. It can be confusing, but they’re separating the abusive person from their violent behavior because they can see the complexities of the relationship."

"Many incarcerated women happen to be survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault,” says advocate Darakshan Raja. "Seeing a Muslim women being criminalized for the actions of her partner not herself, we needed to raise awareness."

Raja helped lead the "Justice For Muslims Collective" in gathering support from 100 organizations to stand behind Salman and oppose the prosecution for scapegoating Salman in the "quest to ensure that someone pay the price for Mateen’s actions."

"Just because Noor Salman was found not guilty doesn’t mean there’s not going to be a social punishment, and it’s important for the community to help her rebuild her life," Raja says. "We also need to think about what accountability of the FBI and prosecution looks like so they don’t go around harming others people’s lives."

But unlike other cases where abuse survivors are criminalized, many of Salman’s family members expressed fear at attending her trial. Raja says the domestic War on Terror since 9/11 has led many Muslims to fear being found guilty by association because of Islamophobia. Acquittals in terrorism cases like Salman’s are rare, she adds.

"Even though her family supported her and believed in her innocence, they were afraid," she says. "If you talk to the families of people brought under these material support charges, they feel alienated and shunned from their community. If you’re seen as someone believing in her humanity, then you’re a terrorist sympathizer."

On the other side of the courtroom, family members of Pulse victims and survivors were silent as the verdict was read – many felt powerless and upset. The mother of Pulse victim Christopher “Drew” Leinonen, Christine Leinonen told the Orlando Sentinel that while Salman’s confession seemed coerced, she still believed Salman "was guilty of knowing that her husband was planning an attack and doing nothing to stop it."

Keinon Carter, a survivor who was shot twice at Pulse, says he’s still confused about what happened on June 12, but the jury looked at the evidence in Salman’s case and found her not guilty.

"She was blessed to be free to be with her child," Carter says. "It’s already gonna hurt to lose one parent. I wouldn’t wish on someone losing both parents having lost a parent myself."

Scheller says news outlets demonized his client. After the trial, Swift told reporters outside the courthouse that the media "missed the story because they depended on the government to tell it to them."

While Scheller was saddened that the jury believed Salman knew about the attack, he says he's glad they fulfilled their role as jurors and looked carefully at all the evidence to determine she was not guilty of the charges.

"I will go to my grave never believing that Noor Salman knew there was going to be an attack," he said. "I think this case was a critical metaphor for the American experience since 9/11. We’ve had a sacrifice of American values at the altar of national security. In Ms. Salman’s case, she was the other, she’s different. She’s of the Muslim religion. We make these assumptions about her, and the media certainly do that with Muslim women all the time – that they must have known what their husbands were doing. It’s this American fear of the other that still persists in our country."

Scheller says he still talks to Salman twice a day to check on her and her son.

"You know, Omar Mateen wasn’t created the night of the shooting," he says. "The evil that rested in his soul doesn’t come up in a moment before the attack. His cruelty and his inhumanity are what Noor Salman experienced throughout their marriage. She’s definitely been traumatized, but she has an essential goodness about her. … It’s going to be a long process for her and her son. Hopefully they’ll get the support they need."

Editor's note: This story is an extended version of the article we published in print on April 11, 2018.

mcordeiro@orlandoweekly.com

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