By Joey Roulette
ORLANDO, Fla. (Reuters) - The widow of the Pulse nightclub gunman walked free on Friday after a jury cleared her of charges related to the 2016 massacre that killed 49 people in Orlando, stunning survivors who had longed to hold someone accountable.
Noor Salman, 31, could have faced up to life in prison had she been convicted of federal charges of obstruction of justice and aiding her husband, Omar Mateen, in providing support to the Islamic State militant group.
Instead, the U.S. District Court jury in Orlando acquitted Salman after roughly 12 hours of deliberation that began on Wednesday. Hours later, she walked out of Orange County jail, her head bowed as she held hands with defense lawyer Fritz Scheller.
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"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.
Salman was home with the couple's then 3-year-old son at the time of the rampage on June 12, 2016. Mateen died in an exchange of gunfire with police at Pulse, a gay nightspot.
The acquittal was an emotional blow for the survivors and families of those killed. The attack stunned and dismayed lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people and Latinos who frequented Pulse.
Godman was among several survivors and their supporters who gathered outside Pulse, about 2 miles (3 km) from the courthouse.
"I'm in shock. I think that she knew that he was up to something," said Neema Bahrami, an event manager at the nightclub who survived the shooting while his best friend was killed.
Then 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 people.
When U.S. District Judge Paul Byron announced the verdict, Salman broke down in tears and hugged her defense lawyers, according to reporters inside the courtroom. Her relatives gasped while families of the victims sat silently, showing little emotion.
"We knew from day one she was innocent," Salman's aunt, Susan Adieh, told reporters just after the verdict.
The jury's foreperson anonymously emailed a statement to Orlando news outlets, saying that the verdict did not mean that jurors thought Salman was unaware of Mateen's plans.
"She may not have known what day, or what location, but she knew. However, we were not tasked with deciding if she was aware of a potential attack," the foreperson said. "The charges were aiding and abetting and obstruction of justice."
Salman, who had been jailed during the trial, will move to California, where she has relatives, family spokeswoman Susan Clary said.
Mateen, 29, opened fire shortly after 2 a.m. during Latin night, shooting patrons on the dance floor and spraying bullets at others hiding in bathroom stalls. He held hostages during a standoff with police, claiming allegiance to a leader of Islamic State before he was shot dead.
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 videos, had purchased an assault rifle, and examined three possible attack locations.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation did not record the interrogation and the defense said she was coerced into making statements.
The jury appeared to believe the defense portrayal of Salman as a battered spouse kept in the dark, said David Weinstein, a former federal prosecutor and now a partner at Coral Gables, Florida-based Hinshaw & Culbertson.
"The lack of a videotaped confession had to have had an impact on the jury's acceptance of her confession ... It is clear they believed it was coerced," Weinstein said in a statement.
(Reporting by Joey Roulette in Orlando; Writing by Daniel Trotta; editing by David Gregorio and Jonathan Oatis)