Jury finds Auburn officer accused of murder guilty on both counts

A jury found Officer Jeff Nelson, charged with fatally shooting a homeless man in 2019, guilty on both counts on Thursday.

The King County Prosecutors Office put out a statement, saying, “We want to thank the jury for their time and careful consideration of this case. We appreciate the hard work of all parties to get to these important verdicts. All along we felt this was a case that needed to be tried before a jury. Our thoughts continue to be with Mr. Sarey’s loved ones.”

The suburban Seattle officer who fatally shot a homeless man in 2019 ignored his training and should be convicted of murder, a prosecutor said last Thursday during the trial’s closing arguments, while defense lawyers argued the officer was rightfully defending himself.

Auburn police Officer Jeffrey Nelson was charged with second-degree murder and assault in shooting Jesse Sarey, 26, while attempting to arrest him for disorderly conduct. His lawyer said Nelson shot Sarey the first time after he tried to grab the officer’s gun during a struggle and a second time as the officer mistakenly believed Sarey was holding his knife.

Nelson’s case is the second to go to trial since Washington voters in 2018 made it easier to charge police for on-duty killings. An officer can now be convicted if the level of force was unreasonable or unnecessary, while prosecutors were previously required to prove an officer acted with malice.

Prosecution and defense lawyers finished their closing arguments Thursday, and the jury was expected to begin deliberating the following day.

Sarey was the third man Nelson had killed on duty in the past eight years, but jurors did not hear about the prior two killings because it could have influenced their view of his actions regarding Sarey.

“Jesse Sarey died because this defendant chose to disregard his training at every step of the way,” King County Special Prosecutor Patty Eakes told the jury in her closing argument. “The shooting of Jesse Sarey was unnecessary, unreasonable and unjustified.”

One of Nelson’s attorneys, Kristen Murray, told the jury Nelson acted in self-defense. Sarey was resisting, tried to grab the officer’s gun and “kept fighting right up to that first shot,” she said.

“No one wanted this outcome,” Murray said. “It’s awful. This is a tragedy but it’s not a crime.”

Nelson had responded to reports of a man throwing things at cars, kicking walls and banging on windows in a shopping area in Auburn, a city of around 70,000 about 28 miles (45 kilometers) south of Seattle. Callers said the man appeared to be high or having mental health issues, Eakes said.

Instead of waiting for backup and taking time to deescalate the situation, Nelson used force, Eakes said.

When Nelson told Sarey he was under arrest for disorderly conduct and Sarey refused to put his hands behind his back, Nelson tried to take Sarey down with a hip-throw and then punched him seven times, Eakes said. Nelson pinned him against the wall, pulled out his gun and shot him in the stomach, she said.

The confrontation and shooting were captured on surveillance video, which the jury saw. It showed Nelson clearing a jammed round out of his gun after the first shot, looking around, then turning back to Sarey and firing again, this time into Sarey’s forehead. The second shot came less than four seconds after the first, Eakes noted.

She quoted testimony from Steven Woodard, a witness, saying that after the first shot, Sarey “was on the ground dying. There was no fight. He was done.”

Officers are trained that a person can still be a threat even after being shot multiple times, defense attorney Murray said. Sarey continued to move after the first shot, and Nelson believed his life was in danger, she said.

“Officers get to defend themselves,” she said. “Police have been killed by their own guns. When Mr. Sarey went for Officer Nelson’s gun, he escalated it to a lethal encounter.”

Nelson did not testify during the trial.

The city of Auburn settled a civil rights claim by Sarey’s family for $4 million and has paid nearly $2 million more to settle other litigation over Nelson’s actions as a police officer.

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