A federal judge in California said Wednesday that it is "debatable" whether the government has enough evidence to convict a woman of helping her husband plan the Orlando nightclub rampage, ordering her released from jail until trial.
U.S. Magistrate Judge Donna Ryu also said there is no evidence that Noor Salman, 31, has connections to the Islamic State group or holds extremist views. Her husband, Omar Mateen, pledged allegiance to several terror organizations during the shooting that killed 49 people at Pulse nightclub in Orlando before police killed him.
"She herself is not charged with providing material support to a terrorist organization," the judge said, noting that Salman has no criminal record and that friends and former teachers called her "peaceful and nonviolent."
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"I am very happy that she is going to be released, and she can be with her son," family friend Maisa Mustafa said.
Salman has been charged with helping Mateen plan the worst mass shooting in modern U.S. history and lying to investigators. She has pleaded guilty and faces life in prison if convicted.
Prosecutors argued against Salman's release on $500,000 bail, calling her a danger to the public. She will stay behind bars for two days so the government can appeal.
Prosecutors will file their appeal with a federal judge in Orlando, where Salman is charged and where any trial will be held. One has not yet been scheduled. Prosecutor Sara Sweeney declined comment outside court.
The judge said Wednesday that prosecutors have provided no evidence. They have not offered transcripts, recording or video of Salman's 16-hour interrogation, which she faced without a lawyer in the hours after the June 12 attack, Ryu said.
Salman's lawyers say it's rare to release suspects in terror-related cases on bail and that it shows the weakness of the case. Even so, the judge's ruling took defense attorney Linda Moreno by surprise.
"In most of the so-called terrorism cases around the United States, we’ve seen this in perhaps one or two cases brought," Moreno said. "So this is extraordinarily rare."
The judge said Salman was not a flight risk and will wear an electronic ankle monitor while she lives with her uncle in Northern California. After the June 12 attack, she moved from Orlando to her mother's suburban San Francisco home, where she was arrested in January.
Salman's mother and uncle put up their houses to guarantee that Salman won't flee. Ryu called the conditions of Salman's release "essentially house arrest." Salman will live with her uncle in the San Francisco Bay Area and be required to wear an electronic monitoring device.
Orlando Police Chief John Mina said in a statement that the decision was disappointing.
"I have full faith that she will ultimately be brought to justice and I remain grateful to federal authorities, who worked tirelessly on this case for months, to see that some measure of justice be served in this act of terror that has affected our community so deeply," Mina said.
Prosecutors accused her of accompanying Mateen on scouting trips to the bar. But family friends said the only reason she drove her husband was because he ordered her to under threat of abuse.
"He actually hit her," said close friend Ali Ali, who attended the couple's wedding. "The son was a witness."
Salman initially said she didn't know anything about the attack but later told investigators Mateen abused steroids, was "pumped up" on the night of the attack and said "this is the one day" as he walked out the door, federal prosecutor Sweeney has said in court.
Sweeney also said the couple ran up $25,000 in credit card debt and spent $5,000 in cash in the days before the shooting. Among the purchases was an $8,000 diamond ring for Salman. In addition, they made Salman the death beneficiary of his bank account, prosecutors said.
Salman's attorney, Charles Swift, said outside court earlier this month that Salman made those statements without a lawyer present during an 18-hour interrogation immediately after the attack.
A trial hasn't been scheduled. Salman won't go home on Wednesday, since the judge ordered her release on a 48-hour hold, at her defense attorney's request.