CHAUTAUQUA, N.Y. – Early next year, Jason Schmidt, the district attorney of this quiet lakefront county in New York, will prosecute the man who allegedly tried to assassinate the British-American novelist, Salman Rushdie, last August. It’s a case, Schmidt says, that’s unsettled his local community and police force and will likely reverberate beyond Chautauqua’s borders.
“Within our small community, this issue has upended us, you know, not just in our office because of compliance with discovery laws, but our local police agencies as well,” Schmidt told Semafor in an interview from his basement operations in the Chautauqua County courthouse. His small staff of about 11 — including lawyers, paralegals, and investigators — needed to process 30,000 files to prepare for trial.
He was also concerned with the lack of resources to ensure the community’s safety. “Everybody recognizes that this may give rise to copycat crimes,” he said. “It could give rise to all kinds of problems, and so nobody wants to see that happen.”
Schmidt, 56, became the county’s DA in early 2021 after a legal career that began in private practice in New York City and migrated westward to Chautauqua, which sits just south of Lake Erie and the Canadian border. Schmidt campaigned in 2020 as a get-tough-on-crime Republican. But he said no one in Chautauqua was prepared for what happened on the morning of August 12, 2022: When, according to video footage, a young Lebanese-American man named Hadi Matar stabbed Rushdie 10 times as he was starting to speak at a literary festival hosted by the Chautauqua Institution. Rushdie survived the assault but lost sight in one eye and the use of a hand.
Rushdie, interestingly, hasn’t been involved in preparations for the trial. Schmidt said he’s sought to interview the writer in relation to what testimony he may provide, but has so far been stonewalled. “I haven’t had a conversation with Mr. Rushdie. The closest I’ve gotten is to his attorneys… and his publicist,” Schmidt said.
Matar has pleaded innocent to the charge of attempted murder in the second degree. But his mother has told reporters that her now 25-year-old son was a staunch supporter of the Islamic Republic of Iran, whose spiritual leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, issued a fatwa in 1989 calling for Rushdie’s death. Khomeini ruled that Rushdie’s novel, The Satanic Verses, was blasphemous, due to its depiction of Islam’s Prophet Mohammed.
Matar, at the time of the attack, possessed a fake ID with the name of a top commander in Hezbollah, the Iranian-backed militia based in Lebanon. Matar had made a series of trips to south Lebanon, according to his family, where he could have been trained and radicalized by Hezbollah. Schmidt told Semafor in August that the Department of Justice has opened a separate investigation into the Rushdie attack specifically focused on whether foreign actors were also involved.
Matar’s trial, which could begin as early as January, will likely be short and easy to prosecute, given the existence of the video footage. “This is relatively straightforward, right? It’s a stabbing,” Schmidt said. “We have the video.” Still, the DA acknowledges that the fallout from the case could be far reaching.
This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.
The View From Jason Schmidt
Q: When do you expect the trial to begin?
A: I don’t dictate it. But I think early 2024. So, I could easily see this January, February 2024, maybe March. Right in that time period.
Q: You’re going to keep your case very much focused on just the attack, right?
A: Yeah, the four corners of that [attempted murder] statute, you know, keeps it relatively simple when you look at it.
Q: How much cooperation has your office had with federal investigators?
A: We had some interaction because the evidence that was developed — the physical evidence early on — the federal government wanted to review that as well. And they also have certain capabilities that we don’t have, for instance, in extracting material from electronic devices. So, there was some degree of cooperation, but you know, they’ve gone off on their side, and they generally keep to themselves and there’s not any information sharing going on.
Q: Do you have a sense of what the federal government is looking into?
A: When we talk about motivation, we’re talking about potentially other actors that may be involved inside the country or outside the country. And those can be individuals; they could be organizations; they could be governmental entities. And I think that requires a whole other range of resources, and I think that that goes to the fact that right now, you really don’t hear much, you don’t see much going on. I think that investigation is so much more in depth and protracted than for us, which is a relatively simple and straightforward event.
Q: Do you have any evidence that anyone was helping the assailant?
A: I think the answer to that from my standpoint is no. That’s not to say Mr. Matar did not interact with other individuals concerning his motivations, but well beforehand. But I do think that the Chautauqua Institution promoted the event several months before…because they were gearing up for their summer season. Part of that might begin sometime in and around March. And at that point, if anyone were focused upon Mr. Rushdie, I believe you can Google him, and then the Institution would tie into that search term.
Q: What was Hadi Matar’s path to Chautauqua?
A: New Jersey to Port Authority, from Port Authority to Buffalo. And then from Buffalo, he hired a car, whether it was Uber or Lyft, I don’t recall.
Q: What was found on Hadi Matar at the time of the attack?
A: He had a bag and inside the bag was a fake identification, cell phone, some prepaid credit cards. They refer to [them] as vanilla Visa cards, and I believe two knives.
Q: How long do you expect the trial to take?
A: We’re really talking about a very easy case to prove. I would say, just offhand, that maybe you’re talking about less than a week of actual presentation of evidence and opening presentation of evidence. In closing. I think the bulk of it may be the jury selection process. So maybe three weeks.
Q: Has Salman Rushdie been very involved in the case?
A: I haven’t had a conversation with Mr. Rushdie. The closest I’ve gotten is to his attorneys… and his publicist. And, so, you’re not even sure: We’re trying to get medical records. We’re trying to get things. But I can’t even talk to the guy. He’s got so many layers of people – you’re dealing with a real VIP.
So, it’s a little odd here because we’re trying to prosecute our case. And we’ve had prosecutors here say, you know, we’re set. He’s got to show up, obviously, at trial; we need him. I’ve let his attorneys know. But it’s funny. I did get the silent treatment...I said, listen, the case is going. I need to subpoena him. I want him here. I need your assurance, and then they never even responded.
Q: Do you think there’s a chance he doesn’t show up at trial?
A: I think he would because I think he recognizes, not just for him personally, but the trajectory of his life was changed by this. And it impacts, you know, the literary community. So, I think he would from a moral standpoint. I don’t know what type of person he is, but I would think he will fully cooperate.