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In trial of Pulse shooter’s widow, the missing recorded ’confession’ was the biggest flaw

In this June 12, 2016 file photo, law

In this June 12, 2016 file photo, law enforcement officials work at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Fla., following a mass shooting. The widow of the gunman who killed dozens of people at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando went to trial Wednesday, March 14, 2018, in federal court. Credit: AP / Chris O’Meara

If you believe the prosecution, the case against Noor Salman should’ve been a slam dunk.

Authorities said the widow of Pulse shooter Omar Mateen confessed to being complicit in the attack.

They claim she flat-out admitted to being aware of the planned massacre, saying: “I knew.”

What more could a jury possibly need to hear?

Except here’s the thing: The jury never heard that.

The FBI never recorded the alleged confession . or any part of the 11-hour interrogation.

And that was the single-biggest flaw in the case.

The feds claimed they had a smoking gun, but couldn’t prove it.

And, in fact, there were parts of the alleged confession contradicted by other evidence.

So when Salman declared that the federal agent who claimed she confessed was “a liar,” the feds didn’t have a single piece of incontrovertible evidence to prove she was wrong.

And why? Why didn’t authorities record the interrogation?

“I honestly never thought about it,” testified FBI Special Agent Christopher Mayo.

Frankly, I find that incredibly odd. Apparently, so did the jury.

When I approach a subject (or, in my case, a politician involved in a controversy) I often do so via email. That’s because I don’t want there to be any question about the exchange that took place.

I don’t want to give politicians the chance to claim they didn’t say something I quoted them as saying. I don’t want there to be any doubt about the questions I asked or the responses I got.

I want to have everything documented and provable.

I know this - and I’m just a schlub columnist at a local newspaper.

And yet you’re telling me that veteran agents with the FBI - while investigating the deadliest mass shooting in American history at that time - never thought to do the same?

That’s just hard to buy. So said the jury, which found her not guilty.

This is why recording interrogations should be standard procedure - at the federal, state and local level.

If the evidence is solid, it strengthens the case. If it’s bogus, it may prevent errant charges from ever being filed in the first place.

I’ve written about this before. This past legislative session, House Bill 929 proposed requiring law enforcement to record all interrogations - the way 23 other states already do.

The reasons are plentiful. Prosecutors can’t manufacture a flawed confession. Defense attorneys can’t try to undermine one that was actually given. As former Judge Belvin Perry, the former chairman of the state’s Innocence Commission, said: “It makes the process more transparent.”

The bill, however, died in the House criminal justice subcommittee, chaired by Riverview Republican Ross Spano, who is running for attorney general, who did not respond to a request for comment. (Which, by the way, I made in writing.)

Admittedly, the issue isn’t always clear cut. Sometimes, authorities say people confess during interviews that took place when the people weren’t officially suspects. That’s what authorities claim in Salman’s case - that they interviewed her before she was in custody.

That, however, is just reason to err on the side of prudence - and solid evidence collection - and record interviews whenever possible.

Salman’s alleged confession was particularly flawed. Parts of it were contradictory. Most of it was written by an FBI agent, not Salman. And experts testified that some of the details Salman allegedly provided about where she was didn’t appear to be true, based on cell-phone data.

What was the jury supposed to think?

The strongest piece of evidence - an alleged confession - was also the weakest, because there was no proof it existed . and, in fact, a claim it never did.

That’s why everyone should want the full story.

And if you’re angry about any of this case - whether because you think she was wrongly acquitted or because you think she never should’ve been prosecuted in the first place - you wanted that recording.

Scott Maxwell is an Orlando Sentinel columnist.

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