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Trial Opens Against Des Moines Reporter Arrested In Racial Justice Protest

A view of the courtroom at the Drake Legal Clinic where the trail of Des Moines Register journalist Andrea Sahouri is being held.
Grant Gerlock
A view of the courtroom at the Drake Legal Clinic where the trial of Des Moines Register journalist Andrea Sahouri is being held.

The trial of Des Moines Register reporter Andrea Sahouri started Monday with testimony from police officers who were at the protest where she was arrested while on the job.

On May 31, a crowd protesting for racial justice and against police brutality blocked streets near Merle Hay Mall in Des Moines. Some people broke into stores. Police responded with tear gas and pepper spray to break up the crowd. Des Moines Register reporter Andrea Sahouri was in the crowd, covering the unrest, when she was pepper-sprayed and taken into custody.

In opening statements, the prosecution accused Sahouri of disobeying orders to leave the area and then resisting arrest, while her defense attorney told the jury Sahouri should never have been apprehended after repeatedly telling officers she was not a protest participant but a working journalist.

Journalism and human rights advocates have condemned the charges against Sahouri as a violation of freedom of the press.

Prosecutors asked jurors to focus on the basic allegations in the case. Polk County student attorney Brecklyn Carey is working with Assistant Polk County Attorney Brad Kinkade on the case. Carey said Sahouri stayed behind when she was ordered to go. She also said Sahouri’s then-boyfriend, Spenser Robnett, tried to pull her away from the officer who was arresting her. Robnett is also on trial facing the same charges as Sahouri.

“In that moment, Ms. Sahouri pulled away herself and tried to go away with him,” said Carey, who told jurors they should focus on only three questions: “Were they told to disperse? Did they disperse? And did they pull away?”

But defense attorney Nick Klinefeldt said Sahouri’s position as a journalist changes the context of the case.

“The evidence you’re going to hear is not that Ms. Sahouri pulled away, but that she was assaulted while doing her job,” Klinefeldt said.

He said Sahouri was not wearing a press badge but tried to tell officers she was reporting on the protest, “and continued even after being pepper-sprayed in the face, ‘I’m press, press, press, journalist. Des Moines Register.’ Still arrested her. Still booked her.”

Prosecutors opened the presentation of their case with testimony from two Des Moines police officers, Lt. Chad Steffen and Ofc. Luke Wilson, who described a chaotic scene where police were targeted with rocks and water bottles.

Wilson, who arrested Sahouri, said he arrived with a tactical unit in riot gear that was called in to reinforce officers who were already there. His team moved toward a Verizon store where they believed windows were broken.

Wilson said he used a “fogger” to disperse a group near the store with a cloud of pepper spray.

Wilson said after that most people ran away, including Spenser Robnett, but Sahouri was still there so he grabbed her arm to make an arrest.

“Honestly, I wanted the fogger to just disperse the crowd,” Wilson said, adding that he did not recall hearing Sahouri identify herself as a reporter. “Once she didn’t leave I’m kind of required due to the fact that I’ve deployed pepper spray to affect an arrest so I determined I’ll arrest this individual, still not knowing who she was.”

At that moment, Wilson said Robnett returned and grabbed Sahouri’s other arm and tried to pull her free, but that after another fog of pepper spray they relented.

There is some surveillance and news footage of the events, but no body camera video of the arrest was recorded. Wilson testified he failed to engage his shoulder-mounted camera to record. He also said he was not aware at the time of an auto-record function that may have allowed a video to be recovered before it was effectively recorded over.

Defense attorney Klinefeldt began asking Wilson whether Sahouri and others in the group were given a clear warning to leave before they were sprayed. That questioning was cut short and will continue Tuesday morning.

The trial was originally scheduled to last two days, but did not appear to make as much progress as Judge Lawrence McLellan thought it would on Monday. Attorneys will try to complete testimony and allow for jury deliberations Tuesday, but the trial could run into the middle of the week.

Updated to add video 10:50 a.m. March 9, 2021

Grant Gerlock is a reporter covering Des Moines and central Iowa