ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. (AP) — The widow of the gunman who slaughtered 49 people at a gay Orlando nightclub was acquitted Friday of helping to plot the attack and lying to the FBI afterward — a rare and stinging defeat for the U.S. government in a terrorism case.
Noor Salman, 31, sobbed upon hearing the jury’s verdict of not guilty of obstruction and providing material support to a terrorist organization, charges that could have brought life in prison. Her family gasped each time the words “not guilty” were pronounced.
On the other side of the courtroom, the families of the victims of the June 2016 Pulse nightclub shooting sat stone-faced and silent.
Within hours of the verdict, Salman was released from jail and got into a waiting car without answering questions.
“Noor is so grateful. Her belief in the process was shown. She wants to get back to her son,” defense attorney Linda Moreno said. Family spokeswoman Susan Clary said Salman’s family “always thought that Noor was the first victim” of her husband, Omar Mateen.
Relying heavily on an alleged confession from Salman, federal prosecutors had charged that she and Mateen had scouted out potential targets together — including Disney World’s shopping and entertainment complex — and that she knew he was buying ammunition for his AR-15 assault-style rifle for a jihadi attack.
The government contended also that she knew Mateen had a sick fascination with violent jihadi videos and an affinity for Islamic State group websites, and that she gave him a “green light to commit terrorism.”
But the defense portrayed her as an easily manipulated woman with a low IQ and argued that she signed a false confession because she was tired after extensive questioning and feared losing her young son.
And in a blow to prosecutors’ case, the FBI itself found that receipts and cellphone signals showed the couple were nowhere near the Pulse on the day Salman said they were.
Prosecutors introduced no online posts, texts or any other evidence that Salman supported ISIS, struggling to counter her attorneys’ portrayal of her as a simple, sweet mother who loves her 5-year-old son, romance novels and the cartoon character Hello Kitty.
After the verdict, prosecutors said they were disappointed and took no questions.
“Noor Salman should never have been on trial,” said Ahmed Bedier, a civil rights advocate and the president of United Voices of America. “Let this verdict serve as a message to law enforcement and prosecutors who railroad and persecute innocent people on little evidence, the people of this great nation will not allow it.”
David Weinstein, a Miami defense attorney not involved in the case, said the lack of a recorded confession from Salman probably influenced the jury, which was shown only a written statement.
“As much as we don’t want to admit it, this is the age of the cellphone. It’s ingrained in the minds of jurors, if it’s not recorded, it didn’t happen,” Weinstein said.
Prosecutors had also accused Salman of obstructing the investigation by lying to the FBI. She falsely claimed that her husband didn’t use the internet in their home, that he had deactivated his Facebook account years earlier, that he had one gun when he had three, and that he wasn’t radicalized, they said.
But the defense said that Salman, who was born in California to Palestinian parents, was abused and cheated on by her husband and that he concealed much of his life from her.
Defense attorney Charles Swift argued there was no way Salman knew that her husband would attack the nightclub because even he didn’t know it until moments before.
According to prosecutors, Mateen intended to attack Disney World’s shopping and entertainment complex by hiding a gun in a stroller but became spooked by police and chose a new target.
Mateen, the American-born son of Afghan immigrants, was killed by police in the nightclub attack.
This story has been corrected to show that Bedier is with United Voices of America.