Iowa journalist Andrea Sahouri acquitted in rare trial of reporter arrested while on assignment

DES MOINES, Iowa — Andrea Sahouri, the Iowa journalist who was arrested as she reported on racial justice protests last summer, was found not guilty in a case that drew widespread condemnation from journalism and free press organizations.

Sahouri, a Des Moines Register reporter, was one of just a handful of journalists whose charges stemming from coverage of the protests in the wake of George Floyd’s killing were not thrown out. More than 120 reporters were arrested or detained in 2020, but in most cases, prosecutors dropped the charges.

The Des Moines Register is owned by Gannett, the same parent company as USA TODAY.

Sahouri was acquitted of both misdemeanor charges against her, failure to disperse and interference with official acts. Both carried up to 30 days in jail.

Sahouri, who covers public safety in Des Moines, was on assignment May 31 at a protest that had gathered at Merle Hay Mall. Sahouri was with her then-boyfriend, Spenser Robnett, who was there for her safety while covering the demonstration.

Robnett was also acquitted of both charges.

Sahouri testified Tuesday that she was a journalist on assignment determined to cover the historic protests unfolding in Des Moines. She said she immediately identified herself as a reporter when first approached by the officer who arrested her. But she was pepper sprayed and handcuffed after the officer told her, “That’s not what I asked.”

Police officers are shown arresting Des Moines Register reporter Andrea Sahouri after a Black Lives Matter protest she was covering on May 31, 2020, in Des Moines, Iowa, was dispersed by tear gas. Sahouri is set to stand trial on Monday, March 8, 2021, on misdemeanor charges, a case that prosecutors have pursued despite international condemnation from advocates for press freedom. (Photo: Katie Akin, AP)

“It’s important for journalists to be on the scene and document what’s happening,” Sahouri said during her testimony. “Protests erupted not just across the country but all over the world. I felt like I was playing a role in that. I know we are a small city, but I felt like I was playing a role in that.”

Prosecutors with the Polk County Attorney’s Office tried to cast the case narrowly, saying Sahouri’s status as a journalist reporting on the scene was not relevant to whether she committed the acts. They argued that Sahouri and Robnett heard dispersal orders an hour and half before their arrests, failed to leave the area and tried to pull away from the officer arresting Sahouri.

Testimony from the trial: Sahouri takes the stand in her own defense after jurors see bodycam video

The defense, however, said that the orders before the arrests sent conflicting messages during a chaotic scene. When the arrests occurred, Sahouri, Robnett and another then-Des Moines Register reporter, who was with them but not arrested, were moving away from a crowd in which police had just deployed tear gas. And the claim that Sahouri and Robnett interfered with her arrest doesn’t add up to other testimony and photo and video from the scene, the defense argued.

The officer who arrested Sahouri did not activate his body camera, but an officer who did arrived moments after her arrest. The video seen during trial showed Sahouri  repeatedly telling officers that she was on assignment as she pleaded for help with pepper spray in her eyes.

“This is my job. This is my job,” Sahouri said. “I’m just doing my job. … I was sent here. … I’m a journalist.”

According to the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker, Sahouri was one of just over a dozen reporters still facing charges for their arrests during the summer protests. In most cases, police departments and prosecutors’ offices never fully pursued charges against a journalist covering a demonstration.

David Ardia, a law professor and co-director at the University of North Carolina’s Center for Media Law and Policy, told USA TODAY before the trial that going to trial in a case like Sahouri’s is “exceedingly rare.” 

‘Exceedingly rare’: Iowa journalist faces charges from reporting on summer protests

Before the verdict, Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, called reporters “kind of a policeman for our governmental system.” Grassley said he was unfamiliar with the specifics of the case, and what Sahouri was doing while on the scene. But, “If she was there just covering the press and not … violating any laws, just reporting, she ought to be covered by the First Amendment freedom of speech,” he added.

Police officers testified, however, that Sahouri and Robnett were seen in body camera footage and a local TV station’s coverage of the protest during and after the announcement of dispersal orders. Protesters were throwing rocks and water bottles while also breaking windows and damaging other property, police officers testified.

Des Moines police Lt. Chad Steffen said he told people to stand back while a squad car’s public address system can be heard in the background of his bodycam footage telling people to “disperse” and also “protest peacefully.”

Sahouri and Robnett said they never disobeyed police officers’ orders and said they did not hear an order to disperse the area. Robnett testified that one point, Sahouri spoke with a police officer on the scene after the dispersal order had been read who indicated to them that they could remain in the area.

Sahouri said she tried to remain at a distance from police to report on property damage, looting and people entering the mall. Katie Akin, the other Register reporter on the scene, said she met up with Sahouri and Robnett, and the three of them often moved away from police officers based on their instincts of what was happening rather than any orders from police.

Des Moines Register Reporter Andrea Sahouri leaves the stand after testifying, on Tuesday, March 9, 2021, at the Drake University Legal Clinic, in Des Moines. (Photo: Kelsey Kremer/The Register)

The arrests occurred around 8 p.m. that evening after police had deployed tear gas in a large group. Sahouri said the chemical agent scattered people. As they were moving away, Robnett was struck by a projectile he believed came from police.

As the three continued to move away, Sahouri said she turned around and saw a police officer running at her, so she stopped. “I didn’t think it was a good idea to run from officers,” she said.

Des Moines police officer Luke Wilson said that he came up on a group of people, deployed pepper spray and saw Sahouri was the only one who did not immediately leave.

That’s when Wilson grabbed her and began the arrest, he said. When he had a hold of one of her arm, Wilson said she tried to pull her arm away. The officer said he was unsure why, indicating it was possible she was still feeling the effects of the pepper spray. Wilson also said Robnett tried to grab Sahouri from him, so he pepper sprayed him.

Sahouri and Robnett denied interfering with Wilson. Robnett said he took one step toward Sahouri once he saw police approaching her, was immediately pepper sprayed and fell to the ground. While on the ground, he recorded video of the incident, in which the group was heard identifying Sahouri as a reporter.

Wilson said he thought he had activated his body camera before the arrests. He pressed a button on the camera to save the recording about 15 minutes later, but when the camera appeared to start recording then, he said he was confused. By the time he realized the incident hadn’t been saved, Wilson said it was too late to preserve the footage. In their instructions, jurors were allowed to consider whether they believed Wilson had intentionally not tried to persevere the footage and whether that would affect the case.

Akin photographed the moments after the arrests. Sgt. Natale Chiodo, whose bodycam footage captured the moments after, said when he arrived he encountered Akin but did not arrest her. “She just seemed very scared to me,” he said. “She wasn’t a threat. She wasn’t disobeying our orders.”

Carol Hunter, the Register’s executive editor, said Tuesday that Sahouri was on assignment and in communication with editors not on the scene to determine where she should be positioned. She said Sahouri did not violate any Des Moines Register policy the night of her arrest.

Sahouri was not wearing a press credential at the time of her arrest, but there is no formal press credential that Sahouri could have been issued, Hunter added.

A press badge for Des Moines Register reporter Andrea Sahouri features her jail booking photo from her May 31, 2020, arrest while covering a Black Lives Matter protest. (Photo: Andrea Sahouri, Des Moines Register, USA TODAY Network)

Before the trial, numerous media and journalism groups called for the charges against Sahouri to be dropped, including the Committee to Protect Journalists, the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and students and staff from the Columbia University School of Journalism, where Sahouri earned a master’s degree. The human rights organization Amnesty International also took up the cause.

Hunter told USA TODAY before trial that the Register was helping Sahouri fight the charges because they “see it as a fundamental principle … that a reporter has a right to be at a protest scene to be able to observe what is going on and to report.”

Contributing: Stephen Gruber-Miller, Des Moines Register

Morris reported from Des Moines and for the Des Moines Register. Miller reported from New York and for USA TODAY

Follow USA TODAY’s Ryan Miller on Twitter @RyanW_Miller

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