(CN) – A jury in Florida federal court has acquitted Noor Salman of charges that she helped her husband prepare for his 2016 mass shooting at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando.
Three days into deliberation, the jury found Salman not guilty of obstructing justice and aiding support for international terrorism in connection with her husband Omar Mateen’s attack on the Pulse gay nightclub, which left 49 dead.
Now a free woman, Salman had been denied bond, and remained incarcerated since 2017 while awaiting trial. She sobbed with elation after the verdict was handed down Friday morning, WKMG reported.
Mateen opened fire on the Pulse club on June 12, 2016. During a call to police that night, Mateen, an American-born security guard raised in a beachside town in Florida, pledged allegiance to the Islamic State and demanded that the United States stop airstrikes in Iraq and Syria. He was killed in a shootout with police after a protracted standoff.
Salman had lived in Fort Pierce, Fla. with Mateen and their toddler. She was arrested on charges that she rode with Mateen in the summer of 2016 to scout out potential locations for his planned attack, including Disney Springs, part of the Disney World Resort. Federal prosecutors in Orlando federal court alleged that Salman had seen Mateen watching extremist propaganda videos and knew he had adopted a violent jihadist worldview.
Salman’s defense team argued that she was the victim of an abusive, controlling husband, and that she did not intentionally do anything to help him prepare for the attack. They argued cellphone location data disproved prosecutors’ initial claim that Salman had scouted out the Pulse club alongside Mateen a few days before the massacre.
Prosecutors ultimately focused on Salman’s trip with Mateen to Disney Springs, rather than the supposed scouting out of the Pulse nightclub.
“There is no serious disagreement on this point. The Government’s expert report, prepared by Richard Fennern, does not conclude that Salman was in the vicinity of the Pulse nightclub on June 8, 2016, or at any other time,” an early defense motion stated.
The cell location data also invalidated written statements Salman allegedly signed in the presence of the FBI in the early stages of the investigation, including an alleged admission that she drove around Pulse with Mateen while he verbally ruminated about a terrorist assault on the club, the defense argued.
Salman’s attorney Charles Swift further claimed prosecutors were trying to exaggerate Salman’s knowledge of and participation in her husband’s gun and ammunition purchases in the weeks before the attack. Though Salman went with Mateen to a local Wal-Mart where they bought ammunition for his security-guard weapon and a toy for their son, she was not with Mateen when he purchased the Sig Sauer MCX rifle he used in the attack, the defense team said.
Late in the trial, Swift to no avail repeatedly moved the court to toss out the charges, on the grounds that the prosecution improperly withheld the exculpatory GPS data and failed to disclose that Mateen’s father was under investigation by the FBI for monetary transfers to Middle East allegedly made in the months leading up to the Pulse shooting.
The information about the father, Seddique Mateen, could have helped Salman’s attorneys develop alternate theories of defense, the lawyers argued. Seddique for his part has denied knowledge of his son’s terrorist plot and rejected claims that he harbors an extremist ideology.
Prosecutors over the two-week proceedings tried to convince the jury that Salman was well aware of her husband’s plot to carry out a jihadist massacre and heard him contemplating which location to attack. Salman saw Mateen leaving their house with a gun and backpack with ammunition on the night of the mass shooting, prosecutors alleged.
Within an 11-day period preceding the attack, prosecutors claimed, Mateen and Salman “spent and withdrew approximately $30,500—more than a full year’s salary for the family,” purchasing $9,000 worth of jewelry among other items. Mateen meanwhile went with Salman to the bank to add her and his son as payable-on-death beneficiaries for his account, the prosecution said.
Salman was also accused of misleading investigators during the initial stages of the post-shooting inquiry. Prosecutors said Salman, on the night of the shooting, told Mateen’s parents a false story about his whereabouts, and later used the same story when speaking with investigators.
“The defendant deleted text messages related to this cover story from her cell phone. Then, immediately following the attack, the defendant initially used the same lie when speaking to law enforcement agents concerning Mateen’s whereabouts,” a trial brief states.
The defense team countered that the 31-year-old Salman, who was born in California to a Palestinian family, was a readily manipulated wife, at the mercy of her deranged husband. Mateen’s decision to attack the Pulse club was last-minute, and Salman did not have foreknowledge of his plans, they said.
Other text messages sent from Salman to Mateen on the night of shooting said, “Where are you?” and “You know you work tomorrow, right?”
Prior to the Las Vegas massacre last year, the assault on the Pulse nightclub was deemed the deadliest single-shooter attack in modern U.S. history.
Florida has been the site of two subsequent mass shootings: the 2017 Fort Lauderdale Hollywood International Airport shooting, which left 5 dead, and the Feb. 14 massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, in which 17 people were fatally wounded.
In all three Florida mass shootings, the suspects had appeared on the FBI’s radar beforehand. Mateen and the Stoneman Douglas shooting suspect had been reported to the FBI for violent rhetoric, while the alleged airport shooter had visited an FBI office in his home state of Alaska, professing to be the victim of government mind control.
No legal action was taken against them by the bureau.
The FBI revealed in the aftermath of the Pulse tragedy that it had investigated Mateen in 2013, upon receiving reports that, while working as a security guard at a St. Lucie courthouse, he boasted of supposed family ties to al-Qaida and professed that he hoped police would raid his home so he could die as a martyr. Agents interviewed him again in 2014 after finding out that he attended the same St. Lucie mosque as a man who traveled to Syria to blow himself up on the Al Nusra front.