A jury acquitted an Iowa newspaper reporter on Wednesday of two misdemeanor charges, ending a rare trial of a U.S. journalist arrested while reporting on a protest.

Des Moines Register reporter Andrea Sahouri was arrested and pepper-sprayed while covering a racial justice protest that descended into chaos on May 31. Des Moines police also arrested Sahouri’s boyfriend at the time, Spenser Robnett, who said he had accompanied her to help keep her safe. The pair faced fines and up to 30 days in jail for two charges: failure to disperse and interference with official acts.

Both of them were acquitted on all charges after a three-day joint trial, and less than two hours of jury deliberation.

“I’m thankful to the jury for doing the right thing,” Sahouri said in a statement after the acquittal. “Their decision upholds freedom of the press and justice in our democracy.”

In an interview with The Washington Post, she called the prosecution “a complete waste of the state’s time, effort and money.”

“This was my first year as a reporter, and I didn’t think something like this would happen to me in Iowa,” she added. “I’m just glad to have finally told my side of the story.”

At least 126 U.S. journalists were arrested or detained on the job in 2020, many of them while covering protests sparked by the killing of George Floyd, but most of those journalists had their charges dropped, if they were charged at all. Of the dozen or so still facing charges, Sahouri is so far the only one to stand trial, according to the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker, which monitors such cases.

The case has attracted nationwide attention, and journalism advocates have depicted Polk County Attorney John Sarcone’s decision to prosecute Sahouri as a baffling assault on press freedom. Although the First Amendment doesn’t grant journalists privileges to go places the public can’t, prosecutors have traditionally declined to pursue charges against reporters covering protests.

“We are very grateful that justice was done today, and that Andrea was fully exonerated. But it should never have come to this,” said Maribel Perez, president of news for Gannett, which owns the Register and funded Sahouri’s defense.

Defense attorney Nicholas A. Klinefeldt, a former U.S. attorney, argued in court that the defendants didn’t disobey police orders. He said the case was about a reporter trying to do her job.

“This isn’t about free press,” Sarcone, the county attorney, countered in an interview after the verdict. “This is about someone who has no credentials on her — we can show she was with her boyfriend — being a part of the protests. Which is fine, I don’t have a problem with her doing that, but it’s an hour and a half after the dispersal order was given.”

Sarcone dismissed a campaign by organizations across the country that had urged him to drop the charges, which included Amnesty International and hundreds of people affiliated with the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. “We don’t make decisions based on other parts of the country. We look at what the facts are here and we make a decision based on that,” he said.

But he also said he respected the jury’s verdict, as did a spokesman for the Des Moines Police Department.

In court, prosecutors had argued that Sahouri’s status as a journalist was irrelevant to the charges and that she and Robnett had ignored an order to disperse and then interfered with an arrest, and therefore committed crimes.

“If reporting or ‘doing her job’ was a defense, it would have been included in the jury instructions,” Brad Kinkade, an assistant Polk County attorney, told jurors in a closing statement. “All the law that you have is all the law that is necessary to find the defendants guilty.”

A few hours later, Sahouri’s mother clutched her chest as the not-guilty verdict was read. Other family members, law students and journalists also watched from the audience, and many more watched the trial via live stream. The proceedings took place in a Drake University law school campus courtroom as part of an educational program

Police in Des Moines arrested at least 79 people over the course of three days of demonstrations last May. Polk County dismissed charges in many of those cases because of insufficient evidence of arrest documentation, according to the Register’s review of court records.

Sahouri, who had been covering the protests, arrived at Merle Hay Mall on May 31 before the scene turned chaotic in the evening. She live-tweeted updates about looters breaking into a shoe store and posted photos of police using tear gas on crowds of people before crossing the street to another parking lot.

The arresting officer, Luke Wilson of the Des Moines police department, testified that he arrived at the area 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 on the stand. “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 said that she had been one of the only people who failed to leave the scene and that she didn’t identify herself as a reporter. He also said that Robnett, who testified that he accompanied Sahouri to the protest for her safety, tried to interfere in her arrest. “He was obviously trying to pull her from me,” Wilson said. So he pepper-sprayed Robnett and arrested him, too.

Sahouri, Robnett and another reporter, Katie Akin, all disputed that version of events.

“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,” Sahouri testified. “He grabbed me, he pepper-sprayed me and said, ‘That’s not what I asked.’”

Akin, who also worked for the Register at the time, testified that she had been reporting alongside Sahouri and that like Sahouri and Robnett, 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 at the mall to a nearby parking lot before Wilson arrested Sahouri.

Body-camera footage became a focal point of the trial. For months, prosecutors resisted attempts to share evidence of the incident, contending it wasn’t required in a simple misdemeanor case and it would be too costly. When a judge eventually ordered them otherwise, police revealed Wilson hadn’t saved the video from his body camera, contrary to department policy.

At trial, Wilson — a bomb technician and dog handler who normally spends most of his time patrolling the local airport — testified that he thought he had hit the button to save footage on his body camera well before making the arrest. But he didn’t check to make sure it was saving the footage. “Honestly, I wasn’t focused on that. I was focused on the rocks and the bottles and the chaos.”

But at trial, the defense called a second officer, Natale Chiodo, who arrived in the parking lot just 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.”

The video also showed Chiodo telling Akin to leave while Sahouri was being handcuffed. He testified that he didn’t arrest Akin because she identified herself as a member of the media and that she “wasn’t disobeying or showing any signs of not wanting to do what we said. She just looked to me to be scared.”

At another protest the following day, video showed an officer spray Akin in the eye with chemicals after she identified herself as a reporter 17 times within 30 seconds. Police said they would conduct a separate internal review into that incident.

Sahouri has remained on the public safety beat since her arrest, covering police. “I didn’t ask to get arrested,” she said. “And I said from day one that I wasn’t going to let anyone or anything stop me from doing my job.”

This story has been updated with new statements and information since it originally published Wednesday, March 10, 2021.

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