Many words have already been written about Polk County Attorney John Sarcone’s brazen attack on press freedom displayed by his office’s decision to humiliate itself in court prosecuting the trumped-up charges against Des Moines Register reporter Andrea Sahouri stemming from her arrest at a racial justice protest last May. What’s less clear is the reasoning that possessed him to do so even as the case drew condemnation from across the globe, and if he or the Des Moines Police Department will ever be held accountable for their abuses of power.
Thanks to Sarcone, Iowa’s capital city is now home to the only courtroom that has forced any of the 130 journalists arrested across the country last year while doing their job to stand trial. Although Sahouri was acquitted by a jury on Wednesday of charges of failure to disperse and interference with official acts, and while Sarcone has attempted to excuse his abuse of prosecutorial discretion by noting that Sahouri refused a plea deal, such charges against journalists are far more often dropped before trial, if they’re even filed at all following a reporter’s detention at a protest. Sahouri’s boyfriend at the time of her arrest, Spenser Robnett, who said he came along out of concern for her safety, was tried alongside her on the same charges and also acquitted.
The trial began on Monday and was streamed online from the Drake University Legal Clinic, an on-campus courtroom that allows law students to gain real-world experience but, in the context of this particular case, served as a disorienting stage for the gravity of the insult at hand. What unfolded was a senseless, three-day charade that abounded with ironies, absurdities, and corny baseball analogies.
The prosecution’s argument was simple: The jury should not consider Sahouri’s job, nor whether she was involved in alleged acts of property destruction and other riotous behaviour herself. Instead, it should treat her the same as a protester or anyone else at the scene who was within earshot of police dispersal orders but didn’t leave.
“People will try to get your attention on something else,” Brecklyn Carey, a law student and intern with the Polk County Attorney’s Office who served as one of the prosecutors, argued during opening statements on Monday. “It is your job to keep your eye on the ball.” Supporters of Sahouri’s were quick to point out that Carey’s Twitter profile promoted the American Civil Liberties Union of Iowa, which decried the case as an “outlandish prosecution.”
In apparent recognition, Carey updated a second, baseball podcast-themed Twitter account of hers to feature a screenshot of a tweet from Des Moines Black Liberation Movement organizer Jaylen Cavil that read, “The prosecutor has been using a dumb baseball analogy throughout her entire opening statement.” Her account profile itself added, “Known for fraternizing with the enemy.” Meanwhile, a friend of Carey’s tenaciously defended her against a barrage of criticism on the social media platform, but did so as she also repeatedly insisted that she hoped to see the charges dropped.
It remains something of a mystery exactly why Sarcone — a Democrat who has served as Polk County’s attorney without opposition for 30 years — placed Carey, or anyone for that matter, in such a position to begin with, instead of dropping the case his office so cynically pursued even as it shone yet another embarrassing national spotlight on the state of Iowa and its increasingly anti-democratic governance.
Sahouri was one of about 80 people arrested over a three-day span of racial justice protests in Des Moines around the end of May last year, along with a handful more in the days that followed. The protests were sparked by George Floyd’s death at the hands of Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, whose murder trial began on the same day as Sahouri’s. Dozens of the charges stemming from the arrests have since been dropped due to a lack of evidence. But Sarcone stubbornly clung to the dubious charges against the 25-year-old journalist, telling the Register last August, “We strongly disagree with how this matter has been characterized and will do our talking in the courtroom, which is the proper place to deal with this case.”
In an interview with Axios after her acquittal, Sahouri, a Palestinian American, said she had little doubt that her race was a “huge part” of both her arrest and the decision to bring such a flimsy case to trial. Many others, including Douglas Burns, co-owner of the acclaimed Carroll Daily Times Herald and one of Iowa’s most prominent media figures, had similar suspicions. “As a 51-year-old white male journalist who has talked his way in, around and out of all sorts of breaking events and tense interaction with authorities I would bet my life law enforcement would not have pepper sprayed or detained me as they did @andreamsahouri — this is racism,” Burns tweeted.
Sarcone has responded to this criticism by denying that Sahouri’s race was a factor. But in years past, the county attorney has flippantly dismissed the glaring racial disparities in Iowa’s criminal justice system, which have long ranked among the worst in the nation, by indulging stereotypes about people of color and their propensity for criminal behavior. (He also “won election by defeating a Democratic incumbent in a 1990 primary in which he criticized his opponent for delegating too much power to a female deputy,” Associated Press reporter Ryan Foley noted Thursday.)
Tellingly, another of the cases originating around the same time as Sahouri’s that Sarcone’s office has refused to drop concerns the arrest of Cameron Lard, a former Iowa State University basketball player who is Black. He was alleged to have unlawfully assembled at a protest as “a member of a group (of WELL over three people)” — the same boilerplate language used to justify Sahouri’s arrest — and failed to disperse. But Lard maintains he never participated in any protest and was simply on his front doorstep attempting to go inside. His account is supported by police body camera footage showing him and a Black friend alone in the area when a van of officers emerges to arrest them both, tackling Lard to the ground and pepper-spraying him in the process. According to Lard’s attorney, Gina Messamer (who in the past has advised the Informer on unrelated legal matters), Sarcone’s prosecutors offered to dismiss the charges if Lard stayed out of trouble but instead did the opposite, inexplicably upgrading his unlawful assembly charge to interference with official acts.
“Honestly, I was just scared for my life,” Lard told Register courts reporter William Morris just a few days before Morris began covering Sahouri’s trial on Monday. “They’re telling me, ‘Put your hands up, put your hands up,’ and my hands were up, but I’m scared. I got eight officers around me trying to manhandle me.” Sarcone, Morris added, had not responded to the newspaper’s requests for comment about recent protest arrests. Messamer is currently trying to get the charges against Lard dismissed.
In an unusual decision the week before Sahouri’s acquittal, a judge presiding over another case at the Drake Legal Clinic dismissed a charge of interference with official acts against a Black man named Wallace Mazon mid-trial. Mazon, who was arrested early last June inside an apartment near the state Capitol in connection with a protest, had requested a directed verdict on the basis of insufficient evidence. According to Bob Rigg, a Drake law professor who represented Mazon, such requests are common but rarely ever granted. “It’s not a situation a county attorney wants to get into,” he told the Register. “You don’t want to be directed out at any time.”
The DMPD has a long and troubled history with race relations, as evidenced by events like the Good Park Rebellion of 1966 and, more recently, a website associated with the department that the Informer reported on last June. The site included blog posts written by two retired officers who smugly criticized the “black community” using simplistic stereotypes and dismissed racial justice protests as the outbursts of naive youth who “have no concept of how life really works.” Since their retirements, the city of Des Moines has spent tens of thousands of dollars settling lawsuits involving allegations of racial profiling and discrimination at the hands of other officers. (Verchon Debrossard, the friend of Lard’s arrested alongside him last year, joined a class-action lawsuit against the city after his case was dismissed in November.)
While testifying during Sahouri’s trial, Luke Wilson, the Des Moines police officer who arrested the Register reporter after pepper-spraying her in the face without provocation, betrayed his lack of familiarity with the nature of protests by likening the situation to a scene from a movie, as if he’d been thrust into a real-life version of the latest Michael Bay production.
It was fitting that Wilson shares his name with the leading actor of the film Idiocracy, who plays the role of Army Corporal Joe Bauers, a man selected to be the subject of a Pentagon experiment after he is deemed the “most average” member of the entire US military. Placed in suspended animation and abandoned, Bauers awakens hundreds of years later in a dystopian, anti-intellectual society that has no concept of social justice or human rights.
Perhaps if Iowa lawmakers continue down their own dangerous path of defunding public education, undermining university scholarship, and attempting to leverage the power of the state to suppress viewpoints that illuminate uncomfortable truths about racial injustice, Wilson, like the character played by his Hollywood namesake, will rise to the occasion in a time of crisis, as he did once before in his “heroic rescue” retold by WHO-TV of a family of ducks crossing a busy street.
But on the stand, the 18-year DMPD veteran was an exemplar of the institutionalized mediocrity of the department, which operates with scant accountability and open disdain for journalists who are uninterested in allowing officers to stage-manage their reporting. Wilson said he wasn’t aware that Sahouri was a journalist when he arrested her, a claim that was easily disproven by video evidence and other eyewitness testimony making it clear he’d been repeatedly informed of this fact. He acknowledged that he had failed to record the arrest with his body camera — excusing this by explaining he rarely used it on his regular shifts at the city’s airport — and that he neglected to inform a supervisor of his mistake as required by department policy.
Just a few hours later on the same day that he assaulted and arrested Sahouri, according to defense attorney Nicholas Klinefeldt, Wilson was captured on a body camera aggressively shoving an Asian officer and telling him he was going to fight him. Klinefeldt argued at a pretrial hearing last week that the footage should be allowed as evidence because Wilson acted aggressively in a similar fashion toward Sahouri. But Lawrence McLellan, the presiding district court judge, ruled it inadmissible. The incident itself did not prevent Wilson from later receiving a promotion.
It was a police sergeant named Natale “Ned” Chiodo whose body camera footage captured the aftermath of Wilson’s initial encounter with Sahouri. “I’m just doing my job,” she says, now detained at the scene, as she struggles to see through the burning of pepper spray in her eyes. “I’m a journalist.” Katie Akin, a Register colleague of Sahouri’s at the time who was in the same area (and now reports for the Iowa Capital Dispatch), displayed a press badge and vouched for her. Their pleas were ignored.
At the trial, Chiodo testified that he chose not to detain Akin because she had not disobeyed police orders and “seemed very scared.” It was a ludicrous contradiction that bolstered allegations of a racial motivation for Sahouri’s arrest, and one the defense seized on to further derail the prosecution’s paper-thin case, which had likely been dealt a fatal blow regardless by Wilson’s bumbling testimony.
In his closing argument for the defense Wednesday, Klinefeldt emphasized an even greater irony: that the prosecution’s case relied so heavily on footage from KCCI, which also departed the scene without incident. The TV news station is one of several that’s enjoyed a symbiotic and at times incestuous relationship with the DMPD, readily framing stories in ways that reinforce self-serving police narratives about the protests that began in the wake of Floyd’s death last May in exchange for continued access and preferential treatment. As Cavil, the Des Moines Black Liberation Movement organizer, pointed out, Wilson’s longtime romantic partner, Sonya Heitshusen, was still a news anchor at rival station WHO-TV at the time he arrested Sahouri.
Klinefeldt continued by listing off the myriad factors establishing reasonable doubt of Sahouri’s and Robnett’s guilt — the numerous holes in Wilson’s story, the lack of any clearly audible dispersal orders and their compliance with a separate directive to stay out of the street, the fact that they were live-tweeting their activities rather than attempting to conceal them. Then he pitched a baseball analogy of his own back at the prosecutors: “That’s strike one, strike two, strike three, he’s out!”
After deliberating for less than two hours, the jury returned its verdict: not guilty on all counts.
A defiant Sarcone continued to ghost Morris, the Register‘s court reporter covering the trial, following Sahouri’s acquittal. But he responded to a request for comment from the Washington Post with a statement at odds with the position taken by his own prosecutors, who never suggested that Sahouri directly participated in the protest. “This isn’t about free press,” he claimed. “This is about someone who has no credentials on her — we can show she was with her boyfriend — being a part of the protests. Which is fine, I don’t have a problem with her doing that, but it’s an hour and a half after the dispersal order was given.”
The debate over the relevance of Sahouri’s job as a reporter led to some interesting discussions about whether the trial’s outcome was a victory for press freedoms or more one for constitutionally protected speech that ought to be applied to the protesters still facing similar charges. As the trial unfolded, protesters and journalists alike united in support of what they saw either way as a clear prosecutorial abuse.
But Sarcone’s conclusion that Sahouri was “being a part of the protests” based on how she was dressed and who she was with — and especially after the Register‘s executive editor, Carol Hunter, testified that she was, in fact, on assignment — is a deeply insulting dismissal of both the press broadly and Sahouri herself, a recent graduate of the prestigious Columbia Journalism School who last month was one of three reporters awarded the Iowa Newspaper Association’s annual Jay P. Wagner Prize for Young Journalists. Dozens of organizations that advocate for press freedoms in the United States and around the world, including Amnesty International, appealed to Sarcone to drop the charges, although they could just as well have discussed the matter with a brick wall.
The Associated Press also got Sarcone to talk after the trial. Among other claims, he denied having an “ulterior motive” in prosecuting the case due to critical coverage from the Register. But doubts still linger. In January, Sahouri co-authored an extensively reported, two-part investigation into the DMPD’s lack of transparency regarding complaints of police misconduct. The newspaper has also occasionally published articles that scrutinized Sarcone, including a 2018 editorial questioning why no one ever ran for office against him and a 2016 op-ed penned by then-ACLU of Iowa executive director Jeremy Rosen critical of his dismissive comments on racial disparities in the criminal justice system.
An email sent by DMPD spokesperson Paul Parizek to Police Chief Dana Wingert two days after Sahouri’s arrest last year — which the Informer exclusively covered last month — makes one thing clear: The department, if not every officer within it, was well aware of who Sahouri was before her arrest. In the email, Parizek describes how he’d observed her earlier that day. He also informs Wingert that, throughout the protests, he had “personally provided each media outlet with guidance of the best practices to continue coverage of these events” and “as much real-time information to ensure that they are able to move to a safe position where they can continue their coverage” — statements more revealing in their subtext, in light of the jury’s determination that Sahouri had committed no crimes, of the department’s desire to control media narratives.
Although calls from Iowa Democrats for Sarcone to step down or face a primary challenger in 2022 are growing, there is an old boys’ club in Polk County replete with Democrats who have filled the attorney’s campaign coffers for years and would likely take issue with a disturbance of the status quo. Sarcone, who is 70, has yet to say if he’ll even seek re-election again. But at least one Democrat — Kimberly Graham, an attorney from its progressive wing who previously ran in the 2020 US Senate primary won by Theresa Greenfield — is already considering a bid for the office.
Democrats have been even less likely to seriously challenge the authority of the DMPD. Some of those who have been publicly critical of how police handled certain protest arrests and proposed modest reforms, such as Des Moines City Council member Josh Mandelbaum, have been criticized for being timid when met with swift resistance and reluctant to push back against the department’s opposition to meaningful changes.
Just half an hour after Sahouri was acquitted and three miles from where the trial was held, ten Democratic members of the Iowa Senate joined the Republican majority in voting for a bill to deny state funding to cities and counties that dare reduce the outsized budgets of law enforcement agencies — a vindictive reaction to recent racial justice protest demands to “defund the police.” Among the Democrats were Tony Bisignano and Nate Boulton, who both represent parts of Polk County. (They opposed a second bill passed by Senate Republicans on the same day that would make it easier to escape criminal charges for striking protesters with a vehicle and establish harsher criminal penalties against protesters for offenses including unlawful assembly, changes that would be enforceable by the DMPD should they become law.)
Meanwhile, freedom of the press still faces serious threats in Iowa. Lyz Lenz, a nationally recognized journalist who was recently forced from her job as a columnist for the Cedar Rapids Gazette after its owners bowed to a smear campaign orchestrated by the Republican Party, spoke to Sahouri about the issue as it related to her recent experience.
“This isn’t going to stop me,” she told Lenz. “It will only make me a bolder, smarter journalist. The state was trying to send a clear message about who can report and how, but I won’t let them tell me how to do my job.”
Featured image: Left, screenshot from a video Sahouri streamed live from the back of a police vehicle after her arrest; right, screenshot from a video feed of Sahouri’s trial showing Luke Wilson, the Des Moines police officer who arrested her last May
Correction: This article previously stated that Luke Wilson was recorded on a police body camera shoving Sergeant Ned Chiodo, who also testified at the trial, to the ground. It has been updated to explain that Wilson is seen on the video shoving a different officer, not Chiodo.