**UPDATE, Wednesday March 10: Verdict reached: Iowa reporter acquitted in a trial that shocked press freedom advocates
Andrea Sahouri, a public safety reporter for the Register, had been covering a chaotic protest and looting at a mall on May 31. While clearing the area, police pepper-sprayed and arrested her and her then-boyfriend, Spenser Robnett. They have both pleaded not guilty to two misdemeanor charges, failure to disperse and interference with official acts, that carry sentences of up to 30 days in jail.
“It’s a historical moment,” Sahouri said from the stand. "Protests erupted not just across the country but all over the world, and I felt like I was playing a part of that. I know it’s a small city here but it’s important to the community. It’s important to know what’s going on and to document that, and I felt that was the role I was playing that day.”
She was one of many reporters injured or taken into custody by police during last summer’s national protests, sparked by the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. At least 126 journalists were detained or arrested on the job that year — more than the previous three years combined, according to the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker.
But in most of those cases, charges were never filed or eventually dropped. Only Sahouri and about a dozen other journalists in the country still face charges, and her case has become a cause for press freedom advocates disturbed by Polk County’s decision to take her to trial.
“It is ironic,” said Carlos Martínez de la Serna, program director for the Committee to Protect Journalists. “She was covering opposition against police brutality and she was subject to this type of harassment on the spot."
Although the First Amendment doesn’t grant journalists any privileges to go places the public can’t, prosecutors have traditionally declined to pursue charges against reporters covering protests, said David Ardia, a University of North Carolina law professor who is co-director of its Center for Media Law and Policy. He called Sahouri’s case “a real head-scratcher,” and a break from “a custom that has been recognized by prosecutors and police departments all over the country … that it’s not in the public interest to prosecute journalists for doing their job.”
Prosecutors, however, presented the case as a simple matter, hinging on whether Sahouri and Robnett complied with or interfered with police instructions. An assistant attorney for the county argued at a pretrial hearing that Sahouri’s status as a journalist was “irrelevant,” and prosecutors didn’t mention her profession during opening statements.
“People will try to get your attention on something else. It is your job to keep your eye on the ball,” Brecklyn Carey, a law student working for the prosecution, told the jury on Monday. Drake University is hosting the trial in a campus courtroom as part of an educational program.
“This case is about a reporter who was arrested while doing her job,” countered defense attorney Nicholas A. Klinefeldt in his opening statement. “She was assaulted.”
Sahouri had been covering the saga.
“She was there to be a witness and to record what was going on for history and for the community, and people in the community deserved to have her reporting on that protest,” Des Moines Register Executive Editor Carol Hunter told The Washington Post. Hunter also took the stand on Tuesday, testifying that Sahouri had done her job, “and she did it very well.”
When Sahouri took the stand, she retold an account she had originally made in a video shortly after her arrest. “I put up my hands and I say ‘I’m press’ because he was coming like, right at me, and I didn’t think it was a good idea to run from officers,” she said. "He grabbed me, he pepper-sprayed me and said, ‘That’s not what I asked.’”
The arresting officer, Luke Wilson of the Des Moines Police Department, gave a different account. He told the jury he arrived at the mall that evening to find crowds of people throwing objects, and fogged the area with pepper spray in an attempt to make them leave.
“Our goal wasn’t to arrest a whole bunch of people,” Wilson said. “It was to clear the area and limit the destruction and damage that was occurring.”
Under questioning, the officer conceded that Sahouri had been affected by the pepper spray, but insisted that she hadn’t identified herself as a reporter before her arrest, and that she had been one of the only people who failed to leave the scene.
Wilson also said that Robnett, who had accompanied Sahouri to the protest, tried to prevent him from arresting her. “He was obviously trying to pull her from me,” Wilson said, so he pepper-sprayed Robnett and arrested him, too.
Robnett later testified he never heard an order to disperse and did not pull Sahouri away from the officer.
Wilson had been wearing a body camera that might have confirmed or contradicted his account, but police say the footage was deleted. The officer testified that he failed to press a button on the camera that would have saved it. “Honestly, I wasn’t focused on that,” he said. “I was focused on the rocks and the bottles and the chaos.”
After prosecutors rested their case on Tuesday, the defense called up a second officer who arrived at the mall after Sahouri’s arrest. That officer’s body camera had recorded the journalist in Wilson’s handcuffs, complaining that she had been blinded by the pepper spray, saying, “I’m with the Des Moines Register … I’m just doing my job. I’m a journalist.”
Register reporter Katie Akin also took the stand, and testified that she had been reporting alongside Sahouri that day. Like Sahouri and Robnett, Akin said that she heard no police order to disperse and didn’t see anyone interfere with any arrests. She said the group had moved away from the commotion to a nearby parking lot before Wilson arrested Sahouri.
“I started to yell that we were reporters because I wanted to make it clear to officers that we were there to do our job,” Akin said.
The police department is conducting a separate internal review over video showing an officer spray Akin in the eye with chemicals after she identified herself as a reporter 17 times within 30 seconds.
Authorities have otherwise said very little in public about the case in the 10 months between Sahouri’s arrest and her trial, despite protests from organizations including Amnesty International and more than 250 people affiliated with the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, where Sahouri graduated. The Iowa Freedom Council said “all Iowans should be troubled by this abuse of prosecutorial discretion.”
On Monday, a Des Moines police spokesman said he would have no comment until after the trial ends. The defense and prosecution have both finished presenting their cases, and the jury is expected to return a verdict as soon as Wednesday.