The widow of the gunman who slaughtered 49 people at a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida, was acquitted Friday of helping to plot the attack and lying to the FBI afterward — a rare and stinging defeat for the U.S. government in a terrorism case.
Noor Salman, 31, sobbed upon hearing the jury's verdict of not guilty of obstruction and providing material support to a terrorist organization, charges that could have brought a life sentence. Her family gasped each time the words "not guilty" were pronounced.
On the other side of the Orlando courtroom, the families of the victims of the June 2016 Pulse nightclub shooting sat stone-faced and silent.
Within hours, Salman was released from jail after 14 months and got into a waiting car without answering questions.
"Noor is so grateful. Her belief in the process was shown. She wants to get back to her son," her attorney Linda Moreno said. Family spokeswoman Susan Clary said Salman's family "always thought that Noor was the first victim" of her husband, Omar Mateen.
The verdict reverberated through Orlando and legal circles beyond.
"The government rarely, rarely loses these kinds of cases. It's got every single factor on its side," said David Oscar Markus, a Miami attorney who routinely tries federal cases. "It's a pretty impressive win for the defence and a devastating loss for the government."
Mateen, the American-born son of Afghan immigrants, was killed by police after opening fire in the name of the Islamic State group.
Relying heavily on an alleged confession from Salman, federal prosecutors charged that she and Mateen had scouted out potential targets together — including Disney World's shopping and entertainment complex — and that she gave him the "green light to commit terrorism."
But the defence portrayed her as an easily manipulated woman with a low IQ and argued that she signed a false confession because she was tired after a long interrogation and feared losing her young son.
In a blow to the government's case, the FBI itself found that receipts and cellphone signals showed the couple were nowhere near the Pulse on the day Salman said they were.
Also, prosecutors introduced no online posts, texts or any other evidence that Salman supported ISIS, and were hard-pressed to counter the defence's portrayal of her as a simple, sweet mother who loves her 5-year-old son, romance novels and the cartoon character Hello Kitty.
After the verdict, prosecutors said they were disappointed and took no questions.
The jurors said little as they left court.
"Noor Salman should never have been on trial," said Ahmed Bedier, a civil rights advocate and the president of United Voices of America. "Let this verdict serve as a message to law enforcement and prosecutors who railroad and persecute innocent people on little evidence, the people of this great nation will not allow it."
Some veteran attorneys said the government made a mistake in not recording the alleged confession. The jury was given only a written statement.
"The FBI needs to start recording their statements. It's a terrible practice. But it's the FBI's policy not to record," Markus said. "Even local police agencies now record statements and are required to do so. Jurors in today's age want to hear the recording, they want to see the evidence."
Miami defence attorney David Weinstein said: "As much as we don't want to admit it, this is the age of the cellphone. It's ingrained in the minds of jurors, if it's not recorded, it didn't happen."
Christine Leinonen, an attorney and former state trooper whose only son was killed in the nightclub massacre, told The Orlando Sentinel she was disappointed but not shocked by the verdict. She said Salman's alleged confession was "clearly coerced" and added: "Cops screw up their own cases."
Prosecutors had also accused Salman of falsely claiming that her husband didn't use the internet in their home, that he had deactivated his Facebook account years earlier, that he had one gun when he had three, and that he wasn't radicalized.
But the defence said that Salman, who was born in California to Palestinian parents, was abused and cheated on by her husband and that he concealed much of his life from her. Her attorneys argued there was no way she knew her husband would attack the nightclub because even he didn't know it until moments before.
According to prosecutors, Mateen intended to attack Disney World's shopping and entertainment complex by hiding a gun in a stroller but became spooked by police and chose a new target.
Lush reported from St. Petersburg, Florida.
This story has been corrected to show that Bedier is with United Voices of America.