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Salman's Attorney Speaks, While Foreman Said She Knew of Pending Attack

Longer Scheller piece

The wife of the Pulse shooter is now free and everyone from her lawyer (pictured) to the jury foreman are speaking freely.

A defense attorney for the Pulse shooter's widow says his defendent feels compassion and sorrow for victims of the 2016 attack, but that she should not be held responsible for their deaths. Fritz Scheller, an attorney for Omar Mateen's wife Noor Salman, said he believed in her innocence from the moment he met her. Today, a jury agreed, finding Salman not guilty of aiding and abetting a terrorist of obstructing justice.

Meanwhile, the foreman for the jury that acquitted Salman put out a statement expressing that he did think the defendant did know Mateen was planning an attack, even if she did not know when and where it would happen. "She knew," the foreman wrote. "However, we were not tasked with deciding if she was aware of a potential attack. The charges were aiding and abetting and obstruction of justice."

Scheller, his first exclusive interview following the verdict, said the defense team remained confident throughout the trial that a jury would acquit Salman. That's partly because accusations Salman aided or abetted the attack seem so out of character. "Even the government witnesses described her as trusting, loving, deeply caring and naive," he says.

But Scheller also says he feels tremendous empathy with the Pulse survivor community today. The member of the defense team based in Orlando, Scheller says a close friend had a gay grandson who survived the attack. And unlike most trials, he says he engaged with the families of those killed and with survivors of the attack a great deal over the course of the case. "To have that contact with victims, it's unusual for a defense counsel," he says.

Ultimately, 49 innocent people died in the Pulse attack on June 12, 2016 and another 53 were injured. Mateen died at the hands of law enforcement after an hours-long standoff at the club.

Salman felt a closeness to those attacked, Sheller says. "She always had a sense of sorrow for them," Scheller said. And attorneys in closing arguments labeled Salman the first victim of Omar Mateen.

The foreman in the trial, who remains anonymous, also expressed sympathy to those affected by the attack. The foreman released a lengthy statement to media, which ClickOrlando released in full: "I want to express my deepest sympathy to family and friends of the victims of this senseless tragedy. I understand the desire to hold someone accountable for this heinous act of violence. Omar Mateen is dead. He cannot be punished. It is only logical the world would look next to Noor Salman."

Scheller defended an assertion made by defense in trial, one ultimately adopted by prosecutors, that Mateen did not originally intend to target Pulse, and that the first time he visited that club was the day of the shooting. "I started this case with the impression that this was about Pulse," Scheller says. "But that's one of the reasons you hire experts."

Study of Mateen's movements on June 11 and 12, as well as during a trip the week before the attack when the family vacationed to Orlando, don't place him at the club. GPS data and cell phone records don't show Mateen visiting the club until about an hour before the attack. Scheller said other accounts he had previously visited the club never came out in the defense investigation.

A spokesman for the US Attorney's Office said no one would comment on the verdict today. In closing arguments, Assistant US Attorney Sara Sweeney said Mateen clearly intended to target Disney Springs but left because of a strong security presence there.

The defense team also investigated infidelity by Mateen, including women he'd met on Tinder. The defense also investigated whether he'd had affairs with men or trans individuals, and could find no evidence. "Part of the defense is that he had a secret life and kept his wife in the dark," Scheller says. "If he kept his wife in the dark about his affairs, then it's natural he keep her in the dark about his plans."

The foreman said the complicated range of evidence in the trial made deliberation a challenge. "These past few days have been very difficult," the foreman statement reads. "We listened carefully to opening arguments, testimonies from both prosecution and defense witnesses, viewed many exhibits and heard closing statements. We received many pages of documentation from the court outlining very specific instructions related to the charges and how we should apply the law. We used these detailed instructions, our courtroom notes and all evidence presented by both sides in our deliberations."

Salman was released from federal custody hours after the trial, and family spokeswoman Susan Clary shared a picture on Twitter of the now-acquitted defendant with her defense team of Scheller, Linda Moreno and Charles Swift. Salman will not do interviews immediately, Scheller says, and remains focused on reuniting with her son, who has been with Salman's family since her arrest in January 2017.

The foreman made clear that finding Salman innocent of charges brought against her doesn't mean they believe she was entirely ignorant of an impending terrorist attack. "I want to make several things very clear. A verdict of not guilty did NOT mean that we thought Noor Salman was unaware of what Omar Mateen was planning to do. On the contrary we were convinced she did know. 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 charges were aiding and abetting and obstruction of justice. I felt the both the prosecution and the defense did an excellent job presenting their case. I wish that the FBI had recorded their interviews with Ms. Salman as there were several significant inconsistencies with the written summaries of her statements. The bottom line is that, based on the letter of the law, and the detailed instructions provided by the court, we were presented with no option but to return a verdict of not guilty."

When asked if Salman will do any type of gesture to Orlando's LGBT or Latino family, Scheller said no decision had yet been made. "We are just letting her have time with her family and to decompress."

Scheller also wrote a motion in the course of the case that made public the startling fact Mateen's father, Seddique Mateen, had been an FBI informant for 11 years before the attack. Prosecutors disclosed that to defense attorneys after resting their own case and in response to a specific request for information made by Scheller.

Scheller says he long suspected Seddique Mateen had some past interaction with the FBI because when Omar Mateen got interviewed by the FBI around 2013 for statements sympathetic to terrorists, the father came and sat in for part of the interview. "I've never seen that happen unless a kid is 14 years old," Scheller says.

While in the defense motion, Scheller wrote that an earlier disclosure might have led the team to explore a theory Seddique Mateen helped with the attack, as opposed to Salman, Scheller would not further explore that possibility. "I don't want to speculate on something so serious," he said.

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