Journalist acquitted in Iowa case seen as attack on press

IOWA CITY, Iowa (AP) — An Iowa jury on Wednesday acquitted a journalist who was pepper-sprayed and
arrested by police while covering a protest in a case that critics have derided as an attack on press
freedom and an abuse of prosecutorial discretion.
After deliberating for less than two hours, the jury found Des Moines Register reporter Andrea Sahouri
not guilty on misdemeanor charges of failure to disperse and interference with official acts. The
unanimous, six-member panel also acquitted her former boyfriend, Spenser Robnett, of the same charges
after a three-day trial in Des Moines.
The verdict is an embarrassing outcome for the office of Polk County Attorney John Sarcone, which pursued
the charges despite widespread condemnation from advocates for a free press and human rights.
Those advocates, ranging from Sahouri’s bosses at the Register to Amnesty International, argued that
Sahouri was wrongly arrested while doing her job by covering racial injustice protests in Des Moines
last May.
Prosecutors argued that Sahouri and Robnett didn’t comply with police orders to leave the chaotic scene
outside of a mall and interfered with an officer who pepper-sprayed and arrested Sahouri, who was on
assignment for the newspaper.
Sahouri, 25, immediately identified herself as a reporter but was nevertheless subjected to what she
called "extremely painful" pepper spray blasts and jailed. Robnett, 24, said he was sprayed
after telling the officer that Sahouri was a Register journalist.
Sahouri was the first working U.S. journalist to face a criminal trial since 2018, according to the U.S.
Press Freedom Tracker. Although more than 125 U.S. journalists were arrested or detained last year, the
vast majority were not charged or had their charges dismissed.
The Register’s parent company, Gannett, funded the pair’s legal defense, and employees of the newspaper
chain rallied behind Sahouri on social media. Columbia Journalism School, where Sahouri earned a
master’s degree in 2019 before joining the Register, also expressed solidarity by promoting the hashtag
#JournalismIsNotACrime.
"Grateful justice was done and @andreamsahouri was fully exonerated," Gannett news president
and USA Today Publisher Maribel Wadsworth tweeted. "But it should never have come to this. She was
assaulted, arrested, charged and tried for doing her job. Today’s victory is as much a victory for the
1st Amendment as it is for Andrea."
Prosecutor Bradley Kinkade urged jurors during his closing argument not to consider that Sahouri was a
journalist, saying her profession wasn’t a defense against the charges. In fact, he argued that the
video and photos she reported live on Twitter of protesters breaking store windows and throwing rocks
was "convincing evidence" that she was near an unlawful assembly.
Kinkade, an assistant Polk County attorney, argued that Sahouri and Robnett were within hearing distance
when police gave orders to disperse, but that they stayed with the crowd. He said it didn’t matter if
they actually heard or understood the orders, which were given nearly 90 minutes before the two were
pepper-sprayed and arrested as police tried to unblock an intersection. The orders were barely audible
on police video that was played during the trial.
Kinkade also urged jurors to accept the testimony of the arresting officer, Luke Wilson, who claimed that
Robnett tried to pull Sahouri out of his custody and that Sahouri briefly resisted arrest. Wilson
acknowledged that he had failed to record the arrest on his body camera and did not try to recover the
video later, in violation of department policy.
Defense attorney Nicholas Klinefeldt said the case was about a reporter who was doing her job and a
boyfriend who accompanied her for safety reasons. He said Sahouri was reporting on the "destruction
of property so that the community could see what was going on."
Klinefeldt said the defendants didn’t hear any dispersal orders and that Sahouri was trying to report
only from places where she was allowed. He noted that they were running away from a tense location where
riot police had deployed tear gas when Wilson arrested them.
Klinefeldt said that the officer’s claim that they interfered wasn’t credible. Sahouri testified that she
put her hands up and repeatedly identified herself as a reporter but was nonetheless pepper-sprayed and
handcuffed with zip ties.
Another Register reporter, Katie Akin, was near Sahouri and quickly informed police that they were
journalists. Akin was told to leave but was not arrested.
Video captured by a responding officer showed Sahouri in pain, temporarily blinded by the pepper spray
and repeatedly telling officers that she was a journalist doing her job. Nonetheless, authorities put
her in a police van and took her to jail.
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Follow Ryan J. Foley on Twitter: https://twitter.com/rjfoley