‘This is history’: Officer killing two years ago now test case for police accountability law

When 26-year-old Jesse Sarey was shot and killed by an Auburn police officer on May 31, 2019, Sarey’s Cambodian refugee family and his foster mother never imagined the unprecedented impact the case would have on our state’s justice system.

“This is history being made in Washington state,” said Elaine Simons, who added she served as Sarey’s foster parent for several years before he aged out of the foster system, fell into homelessness and struggled with mental illness and addictions.

“This is our George Floyd, our Breonna Taylors,” Simons said, referring to others killed by police officers.

Auburn Officer Jeff Nelson became the first-ever law enforcement officer charged with murder and assault under voter-approved Initiative 940, which makes it easier to prosecute police for using deadly force.

On the night he was killed, Sarey was being arrested. Initiative 940 calls for de-escalation, but prosecutors said the officer did the opposite.

“This was a young man having a mental health episode,” Simons said. “He should have been contacted in a place of humanity.”

In Washington state, it used to be extremely difficult to charge an officer in a use-of-force case because prosecutors had to prove “malice” or “evil intent.”

That requirement was done away with when Initiative 940 was passed by voters in 2018. Nelson is the first to be charged under this new law.

King County Prosecuting Attorney Dan Satterberg announced the second-degree murder and first-degree assault charges against Nelson on Thursday.

In a news conference, Satterberg showed a series of four surveillance videos that he said were key in showing what led up to Nelson shooting Sarey twice, including once in the head. The shooting happened while Nelson was trying to arrest Sarey for disorderly conduct.

The videos show Nelson telling Sarey he is under arrest for disorderly conduct and then trying to take him into custody. During a struggle between Sarey and Nelson, the video shows Nelson starting a series of seven punches toward Sarey’s head and upper body.

One video shows the officer pushing Sarey against a freezer box while drawing his weapon. Prosecutors said Nelson then fired one shot into Sarey’s torso, cleared a jammed round from his gun, and then fired another shot into Sarey’s forehead less than four seconds later.

“After the first shot, Mr. Sarey was on his behind, falling backwards with his legs and feet toward Officer Nelson when the second shot was fired into his head,” a news release from Satterberg read.

He said the murder charge relates to the first shot fired into Sarey’s torso, which led to his death.

The second shot fired by Nelson into Sarey’s head, which was found not to be the fatal shot, is related to the assault charge.

The decision to charge Nelson marks the first time a police officer has faced charges under the new standards put in place by Initiative 940.

Previously, state law required prosecutors to prove an officer acted with malice. Under the new standard, prosecutors must prove that an officer acted outside the range of what a “reasonable officer” would do in a similar circumstance.

“What happened was the humanity was removed from this equation, and Jesse was brutally killed,” Simons said, adding that Sarey’s test case paved the way for three Tacoma officers to be charged for the killing of Manuel Ellis.

“We now have two families impacted in the state of Washington out of 107 since 2018 under I-940 that are now going to have some semblance of justice,” she added.

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