An Iowa prosecutor defended his unsuccessful pursuit of charges against a journalist who was arrested while covering a Black Lives Matter protest, saying Thursday that he believed the evidence was strong and that dismissing the case would have amounted to special treatment.
Polk County Attorney John Sarcone, a Democrat who has held office since 1991, dismissed the outrage he has faced for his decision to prosecute Des Moines Register reporter Andrea Sahouri as unwarranted.
A Des Moines police officer pepper-sprayed and arrested Sahouri last May while she was on assignment reporting at a chaotic Black Lives Matter protest outside a mall. Sahouri, 25, was charged with disobeying police orders to disperse and interfering with the officer who arrested her.
A jury acquitted Sahouri of both misdemeanours Wednesday after a three-day trial. Outside observers said they were stunned by the weakness of the prosecution’s evidence and baffled by Sarcone’s decision to pursue the case for nine months.
“We felt there was more than sufficient facts to establish the case. Based on the facts and the law, we proceeded,” Sarcone told The Associated Press by phone Thursday. “We bring cases to jurors and let them decide. What I have a hard time understanding is how everyone wants to short-circuit the jury process.”
Dozens of press freedom and civil liberties groups asked Sarcone to dismiss the charges last year, saying Sahouri was doing her job and that journalists must be free to cover protests.
Sahouri’s newspaper, the Iowa Freedom of Information Council, and Amnesty International are among press advocates that have demanded Polk County drop the charges, which they call an abuse of power that violate the Constitution’s First Amendment.
— Iowa Public Radio (@IowaPublicRadio) March 8, 2021
Sarcone said he could not let outside pressure or criticism influence prosecutorial decisions. He also denied that he had any “ulterior motive” in pursuing a case against a newspaper that has been critical of him in the past.
Sarcone said Des Moines police investigators believed Sahouri broke the law by remaining near members of an unlawful assembly who were damaging commercial property and throwing rocks at officers after they were told to leave. His office agreed.
“She got arrested an hour-and-a-half after dispersal orders were given. Those are lawful orders. People can’t defy those lawful orders,” Sarcone said. “No one is above the law.”
Sahouri and others testified that they never heard them. The orders were issued 90 minutes before Sahouri was arrested as police were trying to clear an intersection where protesters surrounded a squad car. Officers were also heard telling protesters to “back up” and protest peacefully.
Sahouri continued her reporting and was later pepper-sprayed and arrested while getting away from another location where police deployed tear gas to disperse protesters.
Sahouri, who is Palestinian American, repeatedly identified herself as a journalist but was jailed nonetheless. A white Register colleague, Katie Akin, was next to her and was not arrested. A different officer testified that he let Akin go because she seemed compliant and scared.
Sarcone denied allegations that the reporters’ races played a role in their treatment, saying Akin “probably got lucky” to not be arrested.
Sahouri told the AP on Thursday that she was the only journalist arrested that day, and she said it was “extremely ironic” that prosecutors used footage from television reporters at the scene in their case against her. She rejected a plea deal before the trial in which she would have pleaded guilty to failure to disperse and the other charge would have been dismissed, saying she was grateful that the Register funded her defence.
“I was doing my job while complying with police orders,” she said. “I literally did nothing wrong.”
Several Democrats pledged to find a candidate to oppose Sarcone in a primary next year if he runs for a 9th four-year term. Sarcone, 70, declined to say whether he would run for re-election, but he broadly defended his tenure as successful.
Sarcone won his first election by defeating a Democratic incumbent in a 1990 primary in which he criticised his opponent for delegating too much power to a female deputy, Maggi Moss. He has not faced an opponent since.
Moss, who was fired by Sarcone and later became a successful defence lawyer, said Thursday that she was disturbed by video showing Sahouri in pain from pepper spray. She said she was stunned the case was pursued in the face of “common sense, the Constitution and individual rights.”
“It leaves a bad taste. It was needless. It didn’t serve any public purpose. It was sad,” Moss said. “Whatever legacy was there for John, I think this will forever taint it.”