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World & Nation

Widow of Orlando nightclub shooter found not guilty of charges she aided in the massacre

Verdict Watch: Noor Salman Not Guity
Friends and family members of Noor Salman celebrate after the verdict.
(Red Huber / Tribune News Service)

A jury on Friday found Noor Salman not guilty of helping her husband, Omar Mateen, carry out the mass shooting that claimed 49 lives at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Fla., in 2016.

The 12-member jury delivered its verdict after deliberating for about 12 hours over three days. Salman was also acquitted of obstruction of justice. Prosecutors had accused her of lying to the FBI agents who investigated her husband’s mass murder, which he carried out in support of Islamic State.

Had she been convicted, Salman, 31, would have faced a sentence of up to life in prison.

Salman cried when the verdict was read. She looked back at her family before leaving the courtroom through a side door, escorted by a U.S. marshal. Her cousin and two uncles began sobbing and hugging as soon as a clerk read the words “not guilty.”

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“Happy Friday. It’s Good Friday,” Salman’s uncle, Al Salman, said outside the courthouse.

He thanked his niece’s attorneys, the judge and the jury.

“Now, we’re looking forward to taking my niece and hiring a therapist for her,” he said. “I don’t know how she’s going to make up for the last two years.… I said, day one, that she’s innocent and I would stand here in front of you when the jury comes with the verdict to tell you, ‘I told you so.’

“Now,” he said, “I came here to tell you, ‘I told you so.’”

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Prosecutors sought to prove that Salman helped Mateen prepare for the attack, joining him as he scouted possible targets and bought guns and ammunition. They also said Salman concocted a cover story to tell Mateen’s mother after he left their Florida apartment to commit the attacks.

Salman’s defense said there was no reason for Mateen to involve his wife in the plot — and no proof he had done so.

“Why would Omar Mateen confide in Noor, a woman he clearly had no respect for?” defense attorney Linda Moreno said during closing arguments. “She was not his peer, she was not his partner, and she was not his confidante.”

Central to the case were statements Salman made to Special Agent Ricardo Enriquez at an FBI office in the hours after the attack. The jury never heard those statements directly, as the agent didn’t record them. Instead, he transcribed her words — at her request, he said, because she was too nervous.

Enriquez testified about the moment he said he realized Salman was involved in her husband’s plot. After transcribing a statement from her, he asked her to sign the document and write that she had been treated fairly. She appended an apology. “I am sorry for what happened,” she wrote. “I wish I’d go back and tell his family and the police what he was going to do.”

“I said, ‘You know, Noor, I realize that you knew what was going on. You knew,’” Enriquez testified.

She denied it, so he asked her to reread the statement.

“She began to cry, and said, ‘I knew,’” Enriquez said.

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Salman would give two more statements to Enriquez, ultimately confessing she knew her husband was preparing for an attack. She also described a chilling scene: sitting alongside him as he drove around the Pulse nightclub for 20 minutes during a family trip on June 8, 2016, and talked about attacking the club.

But there was a problem.

According to experts for both sides, the trip didn’t occur as described in Enriquez’s written statements.

FBI Special Agent Richard Fennern testified that most of the couple’s time that day was accounted for with receipts and cellphone records. They visited the Florida Mall, a falafel restaurant and a Kissimmee mosque, Fennern said, but Salman’s phone “had never been near the Pulse nightclub.”

In the government’s closing argument, prosecutor Sara Sweeney argued other elements of Salman’s confession were corroborated, such as her accounts of a trip to City Place in Palm Beach, a visit to Disney Springs and details of her husband’s extravagant spending before the attack.

Sweeney said Mateen’s initial plan was to attack Disney Springs. He had bought a doll and a baby stroller, in which he planned to smuggle his rifle into the attraction, she said. But he was spooked by the police presence there and switched plans, ultimately choosing to strike at Pulse.

It didn’t matter if Salman knew her husband’s target, Sweeney said.

“She does not have to be his equal in the attack, and in fact she is not,” the prosecutor said.

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But the defense argued to the contrary: that “if he didn’t know, she couldn’t know,” as defense attorney Charles Swift put it in his closing argument.

“That doesn’t make it less tragic,” Swift said. “Not in any way, shape or form. It’s a horrible, random, senseless killing by a monster. But it wasn’t preplanned.”

Throughout the trial, Salman was described in vastly divergent ways by the government and defense. To prosecutors, she was a willing accomplice who gave her husband a “green light” to carry out the attack. To the defense, she was a simple-minded person, susceptible to manipulation.

The defense portrayed Mateen as a man with secrets. Jurors heard from women with whom Mateen carried on affairs, including one he met through his work as a security guard and another by way of Plenty of Fish, an online dating service.

Christine Leinonen, whose only son was killed in the massacre, said she was disappointed but not shocked by the verdict because Salman’s purported confession was “clearly coerced.”

“There was not the overwhelming evidence they needed,” said Leinonen, a former state trooper and attorney. “But I don’t blame the government. That confession was clearly coerced. Cops screw up their own cases.”

Orange County Sheriff Jerry Demings said in a statement that he was “disappointed in the outcome.”

“This has been an emotional event for our community and many may feel that justice has not prevailed; however, the system of justice has spoken and we should look to the continued healing for the families and our entire community so that this event will not define us,” he said.

Lotan and Torralva write for the Orlando Sentinel.


UPDATES:

2:45 p.m.: The article was updated with comments from Al Salman, Christine Leinonen and Jerry Demings.

The article was originally published at 7 a.m.


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