IOWA CITY, Iowa — An Iowa jury on Wednesday 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 jury found Des Moines Register reporter Andrea Sahouri not guilty on misdemeanor charges of failure to disperse and interference with official acts. The unanimous, six-member panel also acquitted her former boyfriend, Spenser Robnett, of the same charges after a three-day trial in Des Moines.
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.
Prosecutors argued that Sahouri and Robnett didn’t comply with police orders to leave the chaotic scene outside of a mall 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 that Sahouri was a Register journalist.
Sahouri was the first working U.S. journalist to face a criminal trial since 2018, according to the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker. Although more than 125 U.S. journalists were arrested or detained last year, the vast majority were not charged or had their charges dismissed.
The Register’s parent company, Gannett, funded the pair’s legal defense, 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.
“Grateful justice was done and @andreamsahouri was fully exonerated,” Gannett news president and USA Today Publisher Maribel Wadsworth tweeted. “But it should never have come to this. She was assaulted, arrested, charged and tried for doing her job. Today’s victory is as much a victory for the 1st Amendment as it is for Andrea.”
Prosecutor Bradley Kinkade urged jurors during his closing argument not to consider that Sahouri was a journalist, saying her profession wasn’t a defense against the charges. In fact, he argued that 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 attorney, argued that Sahouri and Robnett were within hearing distance when police gave orders to disperse, but that they stayed with the crowd. He said it didn’t matter if they actually heard or understood the orders, which were given nearly 90 minutes before the two were pepper-sprayed and arrested as police tried to unblock an intersection. The orders 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 that Robnett tried to pull Sahouri out of his custody and that Sahouri briefly resisted arrest. Wilson acknowledged that 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.
Defense attorney 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 defendants didn’t hear any dispersal orders and that Sahouri was trying to report only from places where she was allowed. He noted that they were running away from a tense location where riot police had deployed tear gas when Wilson arrested them.
Klinefeldt said that the officer’s claim that they interfered wasn’t 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.
Another Register reporter, Katie Akin, was near Sahouri and quickly informed police that they were journalists. Akin was told to leave but was not arrested.
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.
Ryan J. Foley, The Associated Press