The widow of the gunman who killed 49 people at an Orlando gay club has been acquitted of helping to plot the attack. Survivors and victims' relatives expressed shock at the jury's decision.
Noor Salman, the widow of the Florida nightclub gunman, walked free on Friday after a jury cleared her of charges related to the massacre that killed 49 people almost two years ago.
The 31-year-old sobbed and her family gasped as she was found not guilty of obstruction, or of providing material support to a terrorist organization — charges that could have led to a life jail term.
The jury took 12 hours to clear Salman, whose husband Omar Mateen entered the Pulse gay nightclub in Orlando on June 12 2016, gunned down dozens of partygoers, and injured almost 70 others.
During a standoff with police, he took hostages, claimed allegiance to a leader of the "Islamic State" (IS) armed group, and was later shot dead.
Prosecution lacked evidence
Salman was at home with the couple's then 3-year-old son when the mass shooting took place. But prosecutors said she studied possible attack sites with her husband and did nothing to stop his plans.
They claimed Salman initially told investigators she had no idea of her husband's intentions, but later said she knew he watched extremist videos, had purchased an assault rifle, and cased three possible attack locations. But prosecutors failed to provide any evidence that Mateen supported IS from online posts, texts or elsewhere.
The defense maintained that Salman was coerced into making statements during a 16-hour interrogation, which was not recorded by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI).
Her lawyers argued that Salman, who was home with the couple's then 3-year-old son at the time of the rampage, has a low IQ, a childish nature and was heavily influenced by her abusive husband.
Shock and frustration
Responding to Friday's verdict, Orange County Sheriff Jerry Demings said 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," he said in a statement.
The acquittal was an emotional blow for the survivors and families of those killed. Many of them sat stony-faced and silent in the courtroom during the reading of the jury's verdict.
The massacre stunned and dismayed lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people and Latinos who frequented Pulse.
Several protesters gathered outside the nightclub to protest the verdict. One, Luis Morales, told US broadcaster CBS the jury's decision was a "slap in the face of the families and the victims."
One survivor, Neema Bahrami, who worked at the club, said: "I'm in shock. I think that she knew that he was up to something."
"We just relived the whole thing all over again," said India Godman, who was in the nightclub when shots rang out, killing 14 of her friends.
Christine Leinonen, an attorney and former state trooper whose only son was killed in the nightclub massacre, told The Orlando Sentinel that 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."
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Disney World targeted
The Pulse shooting was the deadliest mass shooting in modern US history, but has since been surpassed by the Las Vegas attack in which a shooter opened fire on an outdoor concert last year, killing 58 people.
It was also revealed in court that Mateen initially planned to attack Disney World, one of Orlando's biggest attractions, by hiding his gun in a baby stroller, but was put off by the heavy police presence.
Salman was seen later on Friday walking out of Orlando's Orange County jail with her defense lawyer.
"This was really her opportunity to clear her name and move on with her life," her spokeswoman Susan Clary told reporters, adding that Salman will now move to California, where she has relatives.
mm/bw (AFP, AP, Reuters)