An Iowa newspaper reporter has been found not guilty of criminal charges related to her coverage of protests last summer stemming from the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis.
Two major questions still hang over the trial that produced acquittals last week for Andrea Sahouri, of the Des Moines Register:
(1) Was officer Luke Wilson truly unaware that his body cam was not capturing video during the arrest?
(2) Should prosecutor John Sarcone have proceeded with the case, despite widespread criticism over apparent violations of free-press rights -- even after he should have known video of the arrest was missing, meaning the prosecution rested almost totally on Officer Wilson's word?
The Sahouri trial hits close to home here at Legal Schnauzer because I, too, have been arrested for practicing journalism and spent five months behind bars in Shelby County, Alabama, (Oct. 2013-March 2014) in a case that drew national and international news coverage.
The body-cam issue likely was central to the Sahouri trial, as noted in this report from the UK Guardian:
An Iowa police officer who pepper-sprayed and arrested a journalist covering a Black Lives Matter protest acknowledged on Tuesday that he failed to record the interaction on his body camera and did not notify a supervisor as required.
Luke Wilson said his body camera was on when he arrested Des Moines Register reporter Andrea Sahouri on 31 May 2020, and that he believed he had activated its record function.
His testimony came on the second day of a trial in which Sahouri and Spenser Robnett, her former boyfriend, are charged with failure to disperse and interference with official acts. The prosecution has drawn widespread criticism from media and human rights advocates, who say Sahouri was doing her job and committed no crimes. The pair face fines and even jail time.
The newspaper assigned Sahouri to cover the protest for racial justice at Merle Hay mall in Des Moines, days after the death of George Floyd, a Black Minneapolis man who was killed when a white officer put his knee on his neck for nine minutes. Hundreds of protesters gathered outside the mall. Sahouri reported details live on Twitter.
The scene at the protest was chaotic:
Wilson, an 18-year veteran of the Des Moines police department, said he found a “riotous mob” breaking store windows, throwing rocks and water bottles at officers, and running in different directions. He said his unit was told to clear a parking lot, and he used a device known as a fogger to blanket the area with clouds of pepper spray.
He said the chemical irritants worked in forcing most of the crowd to scatter, including Robnett, but he decided Sahouri should be arrested when she did not leave. Wilson said he was unaware that Sahouri, whose eyes were watering and nose was running from the spray, was a journalist.
Wilson said he grabbed her with his left hand while his fogger was in his right hand. Wilson said Robnett returned and tried to pull Sahouri out of his grasp, and Wilson deployed more pepper spray that “incapacitated” Robnett.
Under cross-examination by defense attorney Nicholas Klinefeldt, Wilson said he charged Sahouri with interference because she briefly pulled her left arm away while he was arresting her. He acknowledged, however, that he didn’t mention that claim in his report on the arrest.
Wilson said he only rarely used his body camera during his normal job at the city airport, wrongly believed it had recorded Sahouri’s arrest and was unfamiliar with body-camera policy.
Prosecutors say Sahouri and Robnett ignored orders to leave the area long before their arrests, while the defense argues any such orders weren’t clear.
Reported the Des Moines Register:
A key issue in the trial was Wilson's body camera, which did not begin saving footage until 15 minutes after the arrest. Wilson testified he thought he had activated the camera in advance and did not realize he had not captured the encounter, although he noticed the camera was not responding as he expected. Although it is possible to recover unsaved video after the fact from Des Moines police body cameras, the missing recording was not discovered until after the camera memory had already overwritten the footage in question.
From personal experience, I've seen law-enforcement officers tell all kinds of fanciful stories while under oath in a court of law. In this case, we will assume Wilson was telling the truth, but that leaves this question: Why did the prosecution press on with an already shaky case? From the Register:
After the verdict was announced, media and civil liberties groups praised the outcome. Amnesty International in a statement said the case is part of a growing trend of U.S. police forces "committing widespread and egregious human rights violations" in response to demonstrations. . . .
The American Civil Liberties Union of Iowa denounced what it called an "outlandish prosecution" and called in a statement for reform at the Polk County Attorney's Office.
"The facts of [Sahouri's] arrest are appalling, but the fact that the state has pressed on in prosecuting her after these facts became apparent has been an embarrassment for Polk County and the State of Iowa, attracting national and international condemnation," Legal Director Rita Bettis Austen said.
I certainly can identify with Sahouri's ordeal. As for similarities and differences between our cases, here are a few:
* Sahouri was arrested on the job, while I was arrested at home, in my garage;
* Sahouri was hit with two criminal charges, both flimsy; there were no criminal charges at the time of my arrest. It was launched on totally civil grounds, apparently by a judge's "contempt of court" charge when I did not appear at a hearing for which no summons had been issued.
* Both Sahouri and I were pepper sprayed;
* I was hit with a resisting-arrest charge and found guilty even though officers did not show a warrant and did not state their reasons for being on our property until after I was wiping pepper spray from eyes. My arrest was unlawful on multiple grounds especially under U.S. Supreme Court precedent in Near v. Minnesota and Payton v. New York, so (like any citizen) I had every right to resist an unlawful arrest -- even though my "resistance" consisted of being shoved to a concrete floor three times.
* My wife was forced to take down articles from my blog -- and none of the articles ever were found at trial to be false or defamatory, and that's because there was no trial -- in order to get out of jail. Publication of Sahouri's work was not an issue at her trial.