Noor Salman trial: Potential jurors asked about guns, Pulse attack

By Greg Angel, Julie Gargotta, David Bodden, Digital Media Producers, Team Coverage
Last Updated: Thursday, March 01, 2018, 6:40 PM EST

Jury selection began Thursday morning in the federal trial of Noor Salman, the widow of Pulse nightclub gunman Omar Mateen. 

Recently unsealed documents shed some insight into the defense's strategy for Salman's trial, taking place before Judge Paul Byron in federal court in downtown Orlando.

According to the documents, Salman's attorneys may attempt to paint their client as a victim in this case.

Salman's defense team is planning to call on two expert witnesses when the trial gets underway.

The expert witnesses are doctors, and one is expected to present evidence that Salman was a "severely abused woman who realistically feared for her life" in the rocky relationship with her husband, who killed 49 people at the Orlando nightclub in June 2016, during which he pledged allegiance to the Islamic State.

And in an effort to show why Salman may have lied to authorities and left out key information during interviews with the FBI, the documents show the second expert may try to explain why.

"Salman is more vulnerable that the general population," one of the documents said.

A court sketch shows what our cameras cannot: Noor Salman sitting in federal court as the first phase of her trial begins. She was not shackled and at times would whisper to her attorney.

Salman is charged with aiding and abetting her husband in planning the Pulse attack, as well as obstructing justice by lying to investigators.

Potential jurors questioned

As jury selection began, Byron asked 10 potential jurors a field of questions, ranging from their thoughts on guns, religion and terrorism.

They were also asked about any connections to the Pulse attack, and stories they may have seen.

By the end of Day 1, six people — who were only identified by a juror number — were selected to move into the jury pool, though it will be several weeks before a final jury of 12 is selected. Four people were excused based on various reasons.

One woman was dismissed after taking issue with guns.

“I don’t see why people would want to do that as a hobby,” Juror 35 responded when asked her feelings on people shooting guns at a gun range.

When asked whether she would hold it against Salman that she does (go to a gun range), Juror 35 replied, “I probably would, yes.”

Another woman, Juror 30, was excused from consideration after explaining deep emotions following the attack. She said remembered the “horrific sadness” after the shooting.

The six people admitted to the jury pool come from all walks of life. Demographically, there are five women and one man. One is Hispanic, three are white, two are black.

As he questioned potential jurors, Byron seemed to dig into people’s life experiences, trying to find out whether they would color jurors with bias or preconceived notions that would keep them from being fair and impartial.

Each juror was asked by Byron whether they felt any pressure from the community to convict Salman. All replied no, in one way or another.

“I would hate for the wrong person to be punished for something they didn’t do. I would like to see the facts to make a decision,” Juror 6 told Byron.

Building a jury

Picking jurors for a high profile case such as this is easier said than done.

David Haas, a former state attorney and federal prosecutor, said impartiality is key for attorneys on both sides.

"The judge sets that threshold and is looking for fair and impartial jury. Both sides are looking for people who can set any biases aside and focus on what is important to their side," Haas said.

"Being fair and impartial is the threshold question."

In selecting jurors, attorneys will have to consider potentially volatile topics for them to consider, Haas said.

"You're going to talk about terrorism, you're going to talk about guns, you're going to talk about domestic violence and you're going to talk about religion. All of those things are factors that both the prosecution and government and the defense are going to consider, and if an individual can't put something aside that's affected them in their personal life, then they're going to asked to be struck," Haas said.

He also added, "Jurors don’t have to have not heard, or know nothing about the Pulse shooting itself, but they have to be willing to set their emotions aside to be fair and impartial to sit on this particular case."

Cameras are not allowed inside federal court, but they do have several rooms set inside where survivors and victim family members can watch the trial as it plays out.

Christine Leinonen lost her son Drew in the attack. In a recent sit-down interview, she said why she will watch the trial.

“I can live with the truth and that’s what I want," Leinonen said. "I want to learn the truth about everybody and everything, find out exactly how everything happened, look at it, learn it, process it, and live with it.”

The dozen jurors and several alternates who are finally selected will then be tasked with sitting through five more weeks of testimony and evidence before weighing the fate of Salman, who faces life in prison if convicted.

Jury selection will continue at 9 a.m. Friday. Fourteen people will be questioned.