ORLANDO, Fla. - An Orlando jury has found the Pulse shooter's widow not guilty of aiding and abetting her husband, Omar Mateen, in the 2016 terror attack on the gay nightclub.
Noor Salman was found not guilty of aiding and abetting the attempted provision and provision of material support to a foreign terrorist organization.
Government prosecutors had said Salman lied to the FBI, but Salman was found not guilty of obstruction of justice.
Salman was in the courtroom Friday morning with her hands physically shaking before the verdict was read. As the verdict was read, her family members embraced and hugged each other. The jury foreman looked directly at Salman while reading the not guilty verdict.
Salman's pro-bono attorneys Charles Swift, Linda Moreno and Fritz Scheller were also emotional. Moreno embraced Salman and was visibly crying. Throughout the trial Moreno has been a source of comfort for Salman and the two have a close relationship.
"Justice was done," defense attorney Charles Swift said after Salman was acquitted.
Pulse nightclub owner Barbara Poma wore all black and a small rainbow hear pendant in the courtroom, she was surrounded by victims' family members. As the first not guilty verdict was read, a family member dropped her head and began quietly crying. The government side of the room was completely silent.
When Poma left the courtroom she had tears in her eyes.
The reaction after Salman's acquittal was mixed with anger and, for some, validation of the U.S. Justice system.
Salman's two uncles and cousin who were in court every day during arguments were elated speaking to the media in front of the courthouse.
Al Salman said they plan to hire a therapist for Salman and reunite her with her 5-year-old son as soon as they can.
"I don’t know how she is going to make up for the last two years," Al Salman said.
Salman's spokeswoman Susan Clary said that the family first wanted to say they are sorry to the families of the Pulse victims who will spend Easter weekend without their loved ones. Clary then thanks the pro-bono defense team who worked on Salman's case for two years without pay.
"In my open statement I said that maybe this was the only community that could give us the justice that was so hard and they did it and we are so grateful for that," Moreno said.
Local defense attorney Fritz Scheller said he had a lot of interaction with the victims of the shooting, who were in the courtroom for the verdict. He said he hugged many of them after Salman was acquitted.
"They’ve always shown a sense of dignity and compassion and I just think they are extraordinary people," Scheller said.
Orlando police Chief John Mina and Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer both issued statements immediately after the verdict.
"Hopefully the conclusion of the trial related to the Pulse tragedy can help our community continue the healing process," Dyer said. "We remain committed to ensure those impacted by this tragedy receive the support they need through the Orlando United Assistance Center by calling 407-500-HOPE."
Mina said he was grateful for the justice system and the jury for their 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," Mina said. "I want to thank the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Middle District of Florida and the FBI, who have worked tirelessly on this case in the quest for justice."
Before the verdict was read people started gathering in front of the Pulse memorial site.
Federal trial began March 1 at the U.S. District Courthouse in Orlando, less than 2 miles from where her husband killed 49 people at the Pulse nightclub on South Orange Avenue.
Throughout the trial, jurors learned new details of one of the worst mass shootings in U.S. history. Mateen killed 49 people and injured more than 50 others before he was killed by Orlando SWAT members.
The jury heard testimony from first responders and shooting survivors, as well as the FBI agents who say Salman told them she knew that her husband planned to attack the Pulse nightclub the night of June 11, 2016, when he left their Fort Pierce apartment.
The government's case relied heavily on a 12-page written statement that FBI Special Agent Ricardo Enriquez wrote down for Salman the day of the shooting.
During the testimony from the government's witnesses, some of the statement was discovered to be factually impossible. Salman's defense team continued to poke holes in the statement with computer forensic and false confession experts, suggesting that Mateen attacked the Pulse nightclub as a last-minute decision.
It wasn't until closing arguments that the government revealed it believes Mateen's true target was Disney Springs but that he had to find an alternative after seeing a large law enforcement presence at the tourist attraction.
Cellphone evidence and Google Maps data from Mateen's phone shows he searched "downtown Orlando nightclub" before heading toward Eve Orlando nightclub and eventually opening fire on Pulse at 2:02 a.m., June 12, 2016.
"If he doesn't know, she can't know," Moreno said of her client.
The most difficult days in court happened early in the trial as Pulse survivors told terrifying stories of how they got out alive, hiding under bodies and learning later their friends had been killed.
The government needed to prove Mateen's act was one of terror for the Islamic State in order to show his wife aided him in a terror attack.
Poma, and the mothers of several victims were in the courtroom gallery throughout the trial. Some said they were there for justice, and others said they wanted answers about what happened to their children.
Surveillance video showed the moment Mateen started gunning down couples on the nightclub dance floor showed the despicable act of violence for what it was.
Christine Leinonen, whose son Drew Leninonen was killed in the shooting, said after both sides presented their arguments she still felt that Salman knew what her husband planned.
"I thought it was a fair trail and the defense lawyer made a good defense in the credibility of the confession, but despite that I believe that," she said of Salman's FBI statement. "They purchased almost a year's worth of items in the few days leading up to the attack. I believe she knew that he was going to be a jihadist at some point in her marriage."
Salman's attorneys said Mateen wouldn't have so much as looked at Salman as a peer let alone a co-conspirator. Mateen repeatedly cheated on his wife and messaged other women on dating websites and Facebook seeking sexual relationships.
"Why would he confide in Noor, someone he had no respect for; who didn’t share his extreme ideology?” Moreno asked the jury during closing arguments.
The government said it didn't need to prove Salman shared any views with Mateen, but only show she assisted him by coming up with a cover story and participated in a spending spree days before the mass shooting. Mateen added Salman as a pay-on-death beneficiary to his PNC Bank account and bought her more than $8,000 in jewelry within days of his deadly actions.
"Her role was to accept his assets and to care for her son," Assistant U.S. Attorney Sara Sweeney said.
After spending two years in jail, a majority of it in Sumter County, Salman could be reunited with her son in California as soon as this weekend. U.S. Marshals are not releasing details of her release for security reasons.
Scheller said he knew the government had lost its case when Sweeney started describing Salman as a cold and callous woman who "only cares about herself and maybe her son." Scheller said Salman is a kind woman with an extraordinary soul and the jury saw that.
In the end, after more than two days of deliberations, the jury agreed with the defense.
"They didn't make Noor Salman the last victim," Moreno said of the jurors.
Salman was released from the Orange County Jail shortly before 1 p.m.
Follow live updates below for reactions from the courthouse.
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