Iowa Jury Acquits Reporter Arrested at Black Lives Matter Protest

Jurors found the newspaper reporter not guilty of criminal charges filed after she was arrested while covering a racial justice demonstration last year.

Des Moines Register reporter Andrea Sahouri testifies during her trial Tuesday after being arrested while reporting on a protest last summer. (Kelsey Kremer/The Des Moines Register via AP)

DES MOINES, Iowa (CN) — A Des Moines Register reporter arrested and criminally charged while she was covering a Black Lives Matter protest in Iowa last May was found not guilty by a six-member jury Wednesday after about two hours of deliberation.

Sahouri was charged with failure to disperse and interference with an officers’ duties. She was handcuffed by a police officer using zip ties and jailed for about three hours before the newspaper secured her release.

Sahouri’s then-boyfriend Spenser Robnett, who was with her at the time to protect her during the demonstration that turned violent, was also charged with the same two counts. He was also acquitted on both counts.

In a statement released following the verdict, Sahouri thanked her family, friends, colleagues, and “people around Des Moines, nationally and globally who have supported me for nearly a year after I was unjustly assaulted and arrested.

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

Register Executive Editor Carol Hunter also expressed gratitude for the jury’s verdict in a statement Wednesday.

“We are grateful that the jury saw this case as the unjust prosecution of a reporter who was doing her job,” Hunter said. “Newsgathering is a fundamental part of press freedom. Reporters need to be at protests as the public’s eyes and ears, to conduct interviews, take photos and witness for themselves the actions of protesters and law enforcement. If reporters are arrested and hauled away from protests, that denies people the right to know what’s going on in their community.”

A request for comment from the Polk County Attorney’s Office was not immediately returned Wednesday.

Assistant County Attorney Bradley Kinkade, who prosecuted the case, told the jurors in his closing statement Wednesday that Sahouri’s job as a reporter covering the demonstration was not an issue. He said the word “reporter” is not in the jury instructions.

“If reporting were a defense, it would have been in the jury instructions,” he said.

The issue on the failure-to-disperse charge under Iowa law is only whether the defendants were within hearing distance of the order to disperse, not whether they heard it or understood it. Kinkade said that according to the evidence, Sahouri was within hearing distance but didn’t disperse.

On the question of whether she interfered with official acts, Kinkade said Des Moines police officer Luke Wilson testified that he held his pepper spray in his right hand, pepper-sprayed Sahouri in the face, and after he grabbed her by the arm with his left hand, she pulled her arm away.

“That in itself is interference with official acts,” Kinkaid said.

In his rebuttal for the defendants, Des Moines attorney Nicholas Klinefeldt said, “Ms. Sahouri was doing her job as a reporter. The state does not contend that the defendants were participants” in the protest demonstrations.

Arguing his client did not disobey the dispersal order, Klinefledt said “she did not hear it” and neither did other witnesses put on by the defense.

“You cannot refuse to obey what you do not understand,” he said.

Klinefeldt said Sahouri’s role as a reporter was relevant to her defense.

“Just as the police were there doing their jobs that night protecting property and managing that crowd, Ms. Sahouri was doing her job . . . so the community could see what was going on,” Klinefeldt said.

Gannett Media, which owns the Des Moines Register and which funded Sahouri’s defense, said in a statement Wednesday attributed to News President Maribel Perez Wadsworth that the company is “very grateful that justice was done today, and that Andrea was fully exonerated.”

“But it should never have come to this. It was clear Andrea was at that protest as a working journalist. It was clear that police were allowing other journalists to do exactly what Andrea was doing that day — reporting from a breaking news scene,” Wadsworth said. “Andrea was assaulted, arrested, charged and ultimately tried for doing her job. Today’s victory was as much a victory for the First Amendment as it was for Andrea.”

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