A reporter for the Des Moines Register was found not guilty of interfering with official acts and failing to disperse Wednesday.
Andrea Sahouri was arrested in May 2020 while covering a protest near Merle Hay Mall in Des Moines. The protest was in response to George Floyd’s killing in Minneapolis.
Police pepper sprayed Sahouri in the face and then arrested her during the protest, claiming she had failed to follow police orders to leave and tried to pull away from the officer who pepper sprayed her during her arrest.
The arresting officer, identified as Luke Wilson, said he had not been aware Sahouri was a member of the press before the incident. Sahouri testified Tuesday that she had told Wilson she was a reporter as he was arresting her.
“I said ‘I’m press, I’m press, I’m press,” Sahouri said. “He grabbed me, pepper sprayed me and as he was doing so said, ‘That's not what I asked.’”
On the stand, Sahouri recounted the events leading up to her arrest. She said she put her hands up when she saw Wilson advancing toward her.
The defense played a video that showed Sahouri telling the officer, “This is my job…. I’m a journalist” after being pepper sprayed. The video also showed her identifying herself as a reporter for the Des Moines Register.
Another reporter for the Des Moines Register, Katie Akin, had been present at the protest with Sahouri.
She testified that she showed the officer her credentials and announced that she and Sahouri were journalists. Akin was not arrested.
Sahouri’s then-boyfriend, Spenser Robnett, was with Sahouri during the protest, claiming he wanted to protect her. He was also arrested, charged and found not guilty on both counts by the six-person jury.
Robnett took the stand Tuesday and said he told the officer Sahouri was a journalist repeatedly. Robnett testified that he was also pepper sprayed and was struck in the leg, causing him to fall.
Robnett and Sahouri testified that neither heard clear orders from the police to disperse. The prosecution, during Robnett’s cross-examination, played footage from a body cam of instructions from police to “Back up...Keep the peace” during the protest.
Wilson’s body camera did not save the recording of Sahouri’s arrest because Wilson did not retrieve the unsaved footage before the camera memory had written over the recording.
The jury deliberated for less than two hours before delivering the verdicts of not guilty on both counts.
If Sahouri or Robnett were found guilty, they could have been fined and sentenced to up to 30 days in jail.
Sahouri’s trial has received national attention from many who consider her arrest and subsequent prosecution a violation of her First Amendment rights as a journalist.
Rita Bettis Austen, the ACLU of Iowa legal director, released a statement condemning the state for moving forward with the trial.
“The facts of her arrest are appalling, but the fact that the state has pressed on in prosecuting her after these facts became apparent has been an embarrassment for Polk County and the State of Iowa,” Bettis Austen said.
The Columbia University Journalism School, where Sahouri earned her master’s degree in 2019, also released a statement.
“The fact that the misdemeanor charges against Sahouri even went to trial is a misuse of our justice system and an unwarranted challenge to a constitutionally protected profession,” the statement read.
Sahouri herself gave a statement after the verdict.
“I’d like to thank my family and friends, my Des Moines Register and Gannett colleagues and people around Des Moines, nationally and globally who have supported me for nearly a year after I was unjustly assaulted and arrested. I’m thankful to the jury for doing the right thing. Their decision upholds freedom of the press and justice in our democracy,” she said.