An Orlando jury on Friday cleared the widow of the Pulse nightclub gunman of all charges in the massacre that killed 49 people, finding her not guilty of federal counts that she tried to mislead investigators and aided her husband in the attack.
Noor Salman, 31, could have faced up to life in prison had she been convicted of federal charges of obstruction of justice and aiding Mateen in providing support to the Islamic State militant group.
Instead the jury in U.S. District Court acquitted Salman after roughly 12 hours of deliberation since Wednesday.
Mateen died in an exchange of gunfire with police at Pulse, a gay nightspot. At the time, Salman was home with the couple’s then 3-year-old son.
“We knew from day one she was innocent,” Salman’s aunt Susan Adieh told reporters just after the verdict.
The acquittal is likely to be an emotional blow for the survivors and families of those killed at Pulse.
At the time of the massacre on June 12, 2016, it was the deadliest mass shooting in modern U.S. history. It has since been surpassed by the Las Vegas attack in which a shooter opened fire on an outdoor concert from his hotel room last year, killing 58.
Salman broke down in tears after verdict and hugged her defense lawyers when U.S. District Judge Paul Byron announced the not-guilty verdict, CNN reported.
Lead defense attorney Charles Swift bolted with joy and Salman’s relatives were heard crying, according to reporters inside the courtroom.
Defense attorney Linda Moreno was seen leaving court with her hand on her heart. Salman’s immediate whereabouts were unknown.
“I don’t know how we’re going to make up for the last two years,” Salman’s uncle Al Salman told reporters. “I told you, and I can tell you now, that she’s innocent.”
Mateen, 29, opened fire shortly after 2 a.m. during the club’s popular Latin night. He shot patrons on the dance floor and sprayed bullets at others cowering in bathroom stalls.
Holding hostages during his standoff with police, Mateen claimed allegiance to a leader of the Islamic State militant group. He was killed in an exchange of gunfire with authorities.
Prosecutors said Salman cased possible attack sites with her husband and did nothing to stop his plans. They claimed she initially told investigators her husband acted without her knowledge but later said she knew he was watching Islamic State recruitment videos, had purchased an assault rifle, and examined three possible attack locations.
Defense attorneys said Salman was a “simple woman who loved children” and did not know of her husband’s intentions.
Moreno told jurors the FBI did not record its interrogation and coerced Salman into making statements that favored the prosecution. The defense said prosecutors could not show any direct links between Mateen and Islamic State and provided no evidence that Salman aided her husband.