ORLANDO, Fla. - Testimony began Wednesday in the trial of Noor Salman, the widow of a man who fatally shot 49 people and injured dozens more in a June 2016 attack at Pulse Orlando nightclub.
The case hinges on whether Salman, 31, knowingly helped her husband, Omar Mateen, plan the attack. She has pleaded not guilty to charges of aiding the support of a foreign terrorist organization resulting in death and obstruction of justice. She faces life in prison if convicted.
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Salman's attorney, Linda Moreno, presented the defense’s opening statements.
"Omar Mateen was a monster," she said. "Noor Salman was a mother, not a monster. Her only sin is she married a monster."
Moreno said Salman was unaware of Mateen's plans on June 11 and June 12, 2016. She said the couple’s visits to Walt Disney World were family outings, not casings.
Assistant U.S. Attorney James Mandolfo said during opening statements that a money trail and visits to Disney Springs and the nightclub in the weeks before the massacre indicate that Salman knew of Mateen's plans.
Salman told an FBI agent during an interview that she was sorry for what had happened and that she wishes she told his family and police what he was going to do, Mandolfo said. Her statements weren't recorded, but she gave several written statements, he said.
"We will prove Omar Mateen provided support to ISIL and the defendant aided and abetted," Mandolfo said. "We will prove the defendant lied to hinder the investigation."
Orlando police Detective Adam Gruler, who was working an off-duty security shift at the club the night of the shootings, was the first witness called to testify in the trial.
Gruler choked up while describing the moment when he first heard gunfire. He said he was chasing an underage person drinking alcohol when he heard what he thought was a typical nightclub shooting.
He said he realized that he was outgunned when he recognized the gunfire to be that of an automatic weapon. He said he saw patrons being shot while fleeing.
"Time froze," Gruler said. "No matter where we stepped, there was blood."
Christine Leinonen, whose son died in the mass shooting, said Gruler didn't do enough to try to stop Mateen.
"I have a lot of concerns with this Adam Gruler. He has my son's blood on his hands," she said. "He should have been at the front door, and maybe someone armed with an assault rifle wouldn't have walked into a gun-free zone and slaughtered my son."
Bobbie Rodriguez, who was hiding in a restroom stall with a friend when Mateen walked in with an AR-15, was the second person to testify Wednesday.
Rodriguez described a bleeding victim who crawled beneath the stall door and begged for help before dying. She said she pulled the body over her and pretended to be dead.
Prosecutors played footage that Rodriguez's friend, Orlando Torres, recorded with a cellphone. Jurors could hear gunfire, screaming and heavy breathing.
Rodriguez said she heard Mateen pledge allegiance to the Islamic State group. She also said she called her mother to tell her that she loved her and that Torres was pinned beneath concrete when police breached the restroom wall.
Salman's attorneys didn't cross-examine Rodriguez.
WFTV legal analyst Bill Sheaffer said defense attorneys are allowing prosecutors to focus on Mateen.
Moreno said during opening statements that Salman wasn't religious or radicalized. She said that history has shown that people don't help relatives who plan attacks if they don't share their radical beliefs.
Terrorism expert William Brandiff said during cross-examination that Salman could have been driven by love.
Sheaffer said that argument could prove troublesome for the defense team.
"He testified (that) it doesn't have to be radicalization," he said. "It can be love that can make one a partner in crime."
Salman turned around, smiled and blew a kiss to relatives who were seated in the courtroom.
"They're horrified by what Omar Mateen did, and they believe Noor is innocent," said Susan Clary, a Salman family spokeswoman. "But they want to have respect for the families."
Despite objections from Salman's attorneys, federal prosecutors on Thursday are expected to play footage recorded by police body-worn cameras. They'll argue that the recordings help prove the shooting was an act of terrorism with mass casualties.
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