ORLANDO — The wife of the Orlando nightclub shooter was found not guilty Friday 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 that 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 killing 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 behind her in the courtroom cried. Salman hugged her lawyers, then was quickly whisked away by U.S. marshals.
After hearing weeks of arguments and testimony in federal court here, 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 club the night of the June 12, 2016, shooting. They said she also repeatedly lied when the FBI interviewed her. By defense attorneys’ account, Salman was an innocent dupe, and the FBI took advantage of her lack of sophistication to persuade her to admit to things she did not do.
Acquittals in terrorism cases are rare but not unheard of, and Salman’s case presented some unique circumstances. The verdict is a major blow to federal and local law enforcement, which had hailed Salman’s arrest in January 2017 as a step toward justice and accountability for the massacre.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office said in a statement, “We respect the jury’s verdict and thank them for their hard work.”
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. Poma issued a statement later saying that the verdict “cannot and will not divide us.”
Outside the club Friday afternoon, a small group of demonstrators gathered with signs saying, “We will not let hate win.” A few of those gathered said they were dubious that Salman could have been unaware of her husband’s plans.
“She may not be guilty, but she’s not innocent,” said Louis Morales, 50, who lives in nearby Altamonte Springs and frequented the club with his partner. “She knew something.”
Salman’s family, though, said that she was innocent of the charges and that 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. She said in an interview with the New York Times in November 2016 that she had been unaware of her husband’s plan and that she was a victim of his physical abuse.
“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 5-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.”
Charles Swift, Noor Salman’s defense attorney, said his client still has a “huge thing to overcome,” in that she must tell her son what his father did.
The jury foreman told local media in an anonymous statement that the verdict did “NOT mean that we thought Noor Salman was unaware of what Omar Mateen was planning to do.”
“On the contrary we were convinced she did know,” the statement said, according to ClickOrlando.com. “She may not have known what day, or what location, but she knew. However, we were not tasked with deciding if she was aware of a potential attack. The charges were aiding and abetting and obstruction of justice.”
The testimony in the case was at times harrowing. A survivor told jurors of trying desperately to stay alive, holed up in a bathroom stall with Mateen outside. A police officer described shooting at Mateen as the gunman 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 entertainment 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, text messages she and her husband exchanged before and after the attack, and financial transactions the two made.
Prosecutors argued that Salman had 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 that he should mislead his mother about where he was and, afterward, lied about his gun ownership and his radical tendencies.
Defense attorneys countered that Salman was essentially bullied into the confession and that investigators had misread her text. They noted that in the early-morning hours after 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 the 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 falsehoods. Some of Salman’s key statements, too, were written by an FBI agent, though Salman signed her name to them and affixed a note of her own.
Swift, Salman’s defense attorney, said he hoped that the FBI would now “join the rest of law enforcement and record all statements.”
“It is ridiculous that they don’t,” he said.
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 afterward, she and Mateen ran up credit card charges and cash withdrawals totaling more than $30,000 — what Mateen made in a year. They argued that 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, that the text was simply confirming what Mateen had 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 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 that Mateen was about to die in a terrorist-inspired shooting.
“They didn’t make Noor Salman the last victim,” defense attorney Linda Moreno said of jurors. “That’s what they prevented.”