ORLANDO, Fla. — The wife of the Orlando nightclub shooter was found not guilty Thursday of aiding and abetting her husband’s deadly, Islamic State-inspired attack and obstructing the FBI’s investigation into the incident.
The stunning verdict means that Noor Salman, 31, can go free, and no one has yet been held criminally responsible for the June 2016 massacre at the Pulse nightclub. Salman’s husband, Omar Mateen, was fatally wounded in an encounter with police after he killed 49 people at the club.
As the jury’s decision was read, Salman covered her mouth, then buried her face in her hands as her head dropped toward the table. Relatives in the courtroom behind her cried. Salman hugged her lawyers, then was quickly whisked out of the courtroom by U.S. Marshals.
Salman had been on trial in federal court here this month, and after hearing weeks of arguments and testimony, jurors deliberated for about 12 hours over the course of three days before reaching a verdict.
The way prosecutors told it, Salman willingly participated in her husband’s plot — even though she did not accompany him to the Pulse nightclub the night of the June 12, 2016, shooting. They said she also repeatedly lied when the FBI interviewed her. But by defense attorneys’ account, Salman was an innocent dupe, and the FBI took advantage of her lack of sophistication to convince her to admit to things she did not do.
The verdict is a major blow to federal and local law enforcement, which had hailed Salman’s arrest last January as a step toward justice and accountability for the massacre.
After the verdict, Orlando Police Chief John Mina issued a statement saying: “I believe in our criminal justice system and am grateful for the jury’s hard work and thoughtful deliberation. Nothing can erase the pain we all feel about the senseless and brutal murders of 49 of our neighbors, friends, family members and loved ones.”
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Orange County Sheriff Jerry L. Demings said more bluntly: “I am disappointed in the outcome of the trial and know that the victims and/or their families are more disappointed.”
Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer wrote on Twitter: “Hopefully the conclusion of the trial related to the Pulse tragedy can help our community continue the healing process.” Victims’ family members left the courthouse with Pulse owner Barbara Poma, ignoring television cameras as reporters chased them seeking reaction.
Salman’s family, though, said she was innocent of the charges she faced, and sending her to prison would have only created another victim. Had Salman been convicted of all the charges, she could have faced a life sentence.
“We knew from day one she was innocent, and thank God it came out,” said Susan Adieh, a cousin. “We can’t commit another innocent person.”
Al Salman, Noor Salman’s uncle, said family members are looking forward to getting Noor back to California to reunite with her five-year-old son. He said he hopes to hire a therapist for his niece, but added: “I don’t know how she’s going to make up for the last two years.”
The testimony in the case was at times harrowing. A survivor told jurors of trying desperately to survive, holed up in a bathroom stall with Mateen outside. A police officer described shooting at Mateen as he aimed at people running from the club. Prosecutors revealed that Mateen might have harbored even more deadly ambitions, abandoning his first target — the Disney Springs complex — only after spotting police there.
Jurors, though, were not asked to weigh in on the horror Mateen inflicted, but rather, to assess his wife’s culpability in the matter. That consideration largely came down to an interview she gave to the FBI, along with text messages she and her husband exchanged before and after the attack and financial transactions the two made.
Prosecutors argued that Salman herself confessed to the crime, writing during an FBI interview: “I am sorry for what happened. I wish I’d go back and tell his family and the police what he was going to do.” They said she also sent her husband a text message on the eve of the attack seeming to tell him he should mislead his mother about where he was, and, afterward, lied about his gun ownership and his radical tendencies.
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Defense attorneys countered that Salman was essentially bullied into the confession, and that investigators had misread her text. They noted that on the morning of the attack, she frantically texted her husband, asking, “What happened?!”
The case was far from a slam dunk, and the prosecution suffered some critical setbacks. They argued, for example, that Salman had admitted to scouting Pulse nightclub with her husband — though cellphone and computer evidence would prove that could not be true, lending credence to the defense theory that Salman was admitting to untruths. Some of Salman’s critical statements, too, were actually written by an FBI agent, though Salman signed her name to them and affixed a note of her own.
Some other evidence was mixed. Prosecutors, for example, argued that Salman was added as a death beneficiary to her husband’s bank account just two weeks before the attack and that, in the period that followed, she and Mateen ran up credit card charges and cash withdrawals totaling more than $30,000 — what Mateen made in a year. They argued she also sent her husband a text message on the eve of the attack seeming to tell him he should lie to his mother about where he was.
“If Ur mom calls say nimo invited you out and noor wants to stay home,” the text said.
Defense attorneys claimed, though, the text was simply confirming what Mateen had actually told his wife, not a ruse to help hide his illicit activities. They said Mateen was unfaithful and often used the friend to trick Salman. As for the purchases, defense attorneys said Salman also bought a Father’s Day gift, and Mateen purchased airline tickets for family travel that was to occur after the attack. Those, they argued, did not seem to be the actions of someone who knew Mateen was about to die in a terrorist-inspired shooting.