Mar 10, 2021 - Business

Des Moines Register reporter found not guilty over BLM protest arrest

Des Moines Register reporter Andrea Sahouri.

Des Moines Register reporter Andrea Sahouri. Photo: Tobias Tyler, used with permission

Des Moines Register reporter Andrea Sahouri was acquitted of all charges by a jury on Wednesday following her arrest while covering a Black Lives Matter protest last summer.

Why it matters: The verdict affirms the right of journalists to document historic and occasionally chaotic protests like those in response to George Floyd's killing.

  • Carol Hunter, the executive editor of the Register, told Axios last week that she feared the fact that Sahouri faced charges at all could have a "chilling effect" on a free press, both in Des Moines and across the country.
  • "The fact that a reporter was arrested while doing her job flies in the face of the very language of the First Amendment," Hunter added.

The state of play: Sahouri faced charges of failure to disperse and interference with official acts.

  • Spenser Robnett, her then-boyfriend who accompanied her at the protest, was also acquitted.

The backdrop: Sahouri told the jury on Tuesday that she was covering a protest at Merle Hay Mall on May 31, 2020, when she saw an officer "coming at me." She raised her hands and said, "I'm press, I'm press, I'm press."

  • Officer Luke Wilson grabbed her, pepper-sprayed her and said, "That's not what I asked," Sahouri testified.
  • Robnett, who accompanied Sahouri to protect her, tried to explain she was a journalist and was also subsequently pepper sprayed and arrested.
  • Wilson did not have his body camera on at the time — leaving out the critical few seconds prior to her arrest.

The state argued: Sahouri and Robnett failed to leave the scene after the police gave a dispersal order.

  • Assistant Polk County Attorney Brad Kinkade said her role as a journalist should be irrelevant.

Sahouri's defense argued: There was no clear dispersal order and no evidence showing them disobeying police commands.

  • Defense attorney Nicholas Klinefeldt said police "assaulted" Sahouri while she was doing her job.

What's next: Sahouri still works as a breaking news reporter at the Register.

  • The state has the opportunity to appeal the verdict if they have a legal basis.

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