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Wife of gunman in Orlando shooting is acquitted

Noor Salman was found not guilty of aiding her husband in the mass shooting at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando.
Noor Salman was found not guilty of aiding her husband in the mass shooting at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando. (Chris O’Meara/Associated Press/File 2016)

ORLANDO — Noor Salman, the widow of the man who gunned down dozens of people at the Pulse nightclub two years ago, was found not guilty by a federal jury Friday of helping her husband carry out a terrorist attack in the name of the Islamic State.

Jurors acquitted Salman on charges of aiding and abetting the commission of a terrorist act in the 2016 mass shooting and also found her not guilty of obstructing justice.

She had been accused of giving misleading statements to law enforcement officers who interviewed her after the massacre, the worst terrorist attack on US soil since Sept. 11, 2001. At the time, it was also the deadliest mass shooting in modern US history.

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Salman, 31, had faced a sentence of up to life in prison if convicted.

The verdict marked a rare setback for federal prosecutors, who have a strong record of winning convictions in terrorism trials — even more so because Salman had faced a jury in Orlando, the city where her husband Omar Mateen’s shooting spree left 49 people dead and 53 others injured.

The jury deliberated for a little more than 12 hours over three days before reaching its verdict Friday morning.

Salman wiped tears from her eyes after the verdict on the first charge was read. By the time the judge’s clerk announced the final “not guilty,” Salman openly sobbed. So did a cousin and two uncles, seated two rows behind her in the courtroom.

One uncle nearly leapt out of his seat. Salman, her face red and blotchy with emotion, turned around to look at them.

Defense attorneys hugged Salman. They, too, wept. Across the courtroom, Pulse victims and their families sat in stone-faced silence.

“It was a difficult case for all sides involved,” Judge Paul G. Byron of the US District Court for the Middle District of Florida said.

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In a brief statement to reporters outside the courthouse, Sarah C. Sweeney, an assistant US attorney who helped prosecute the case, thanked jurors for their work.

The families of the victims left the courthouse as a group, some of them wearing dark sunglasses. They declined to comment.

Salman’s family members said they were overjoyed by the verdict but continued to grieve for the Pulse victims.

“I feel so sad for them,” said Susan Adieh, Salman’s cousin. She added that a guilty verdict would not have brought back the dead but would have forced Salman to pay for her husband’s mass murder. “We can’t commit another innocent person as well.”

From the start, Salman had insisted she had nothing to do with her husband’s rampage. Prosecutors built a convincing case that Mateen methodically made arrangements for the attack, apparently inspired by the ISIS propaganda he obsessively consumed online. But they were less successful in tying Salman to his actions.

Prosecutors relied on a confession Salman gave FBI agents in which she admitted she had known about her husband acquiring weapons, watching Islamic State videos and discussing possible locations in apparent preparation for the June 12, 2016, attack.

Defense lawyers argued that Salman’s statement, obtained after more than 11 hours of questioning without a lawyer present, amounted to a false confession. Salman told investigators that she and Mateen scouted Pulse as a target, yet investigators found no evidence to corroborate that.

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“She was a suspect, and they wanted to get a confession — except that she was still denying that she knew anything,” a defense lawyer, Charles D. Swift, said during his closing argument Wednesday.

James D. Mandolfo, an assistant US attorney, acknowledged during his opening statement March 14 that the case against Salman was not built around a single incriminating fact but rather on the “totality” of evidence regarding her support of Mateen.

Delivering the prosecution’s closing argument Wednesday, Sweeney pointed to unusually high spending and cash withdrawals by the couple in the 11 days leading up the shooting, totaling more than the $30,500 Mateen made in a year as a security guard.

The couple, whose son was 3 at the time, also added Salman as a death beneficiary to Mateen’s bank account, where they expected to soon receive a federal income tax refund.

But the jury of seven women and five men appeared to have been persuaded by the defense, which cast Salman as a naive woman of limited intelligence, kept in the dark by a scheming husband who cheated on her, knew she did not share his radicalized views and did not need her assistance to carry out his deadly plot.

Salman’s lawyers argued that Mateen had no reason to ask his wife for help — and she had no reason to provide it.

Closing arguments from both the prosecution and the defense centered on Salman’s three statements to the FBI.

In them, she conceded that she should have reported her husband’s suspicious activities. “I wish I had done the right thing, but my fear held me back,” she wrote.

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