An Iowa jury has 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 six-member jury on Wednesday unanimously found Des Moines Register reporter Andrea Sahouri not guilty on misdemeanour charges of failure to disperse and interference with official acts.
The jury also acquitted her former boyfriend, Spenser Robnett, of the same charges after a three-day trial in Des Moines.
(Photo credit: Ted Nieters/Polaris Images) pic.twitter.com/sUkjJHQ4gg
— Andrea May Sahouri (@andreamsahouri) March 10, 2021
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.
Denise Bell, a researcher at Amnesty International USA, said in a statement delivered to Al Jazeera the advocacy group is “incredibly relieved and heartened to learn that Andrea Sahouri has been found not guilty of the bogus charges levied against her.
“Reporting at a protest as a working member of the media is not a crime, and treating it as one constitutes a human rights violation.”
Prosecutors argued Sahouri and Robnett did not comply with police orders to leave the chaotic scene 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 Sahouri was a Register journalist.
Sahouri was the first working US journalist to face a criminal trial since 2018, according to the US Press Freedom Tracker, although more than 125 US journalists were arrested or detained last year, the majority during the Black Lives Matter movement.
Most of those journalists were not charged or had their charges dismissed.
The Register’s parent company, Gannett, funded the pair’s legal defence, 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.
“I put up my hands. I said, ‘I’m press. I’m press. I’m press.’ He grabbed me, pepper-sprayed me.”
— Des Moines Register (@DMRegister) March 10, 2021
Prosecutor Bradley Kinkade urged jurors during his closing argument not to consider that Sahouri was a journalist, saying her profession was not a defence against the charges. He further argued 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 lawyer, argued that Sahouri and Robnett were within hearing distance when police gave orders to disperse – about 90 minutes before they were pepper-sprayed – but that they stayed with the crowd. He said it did not matter if they actually heard or understood the orders, which 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 Robnett tried to pull Sahouri out of his custody and Sahouri briefly resisted arrest.
Wilson acknowledged 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.
Another Register reporter, Katie Akin, was near Sahouri and quickly informed police they were journalists. Akin was told to leave but was not arrested.
Defence lawyer 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 officer’s claim that they interfered was not 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.
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.