A judge released unredacted photos of Auburn Police officer Jeffrey Nelson’s tattoos during a pretrial hearing on Wednesday, Aug. 31. Nelson is awaiting trial for the murder and assault of Jesse Sarey in 2019.
Previously, Judge Nicole Gaines Phelps had ordered 38 photos of Nelson’s tattoos to be redacted prior to being released to the public on grounds they would bias the jury pool. Nelson’s defense previously objected to the release of the photos, but during the hearing on Aug. 31, the defense withdrew that objection.
During the hearing, prosecuting attorney Mark Larson asked the court to allow photos of Nelson’s tattoos as evidence, arguing they have probative value because they offer insight into how Nelson engages with policing.
Nelson’s defense argued his tattoos have no probative value and are meant to prejudice the jury. After hearing arguments from both sides, Judge Phelps said she would return with a decision on whether to allow the photos among other evidence into the trial in the coming weeks.
What are these tattoos?
Most of the tattoos that were previously redacted consist of phrases in English and Latin, and many are concerned with death.
“Protect the innocent,” is tattooed vertically on Nelson’s right calf, with “punish the deserving” in a larger font wrapped around his right ankle. A tattoo on his left ankle reads “memento mori,” which is a Latin phrase that roughly means “remember you have to die.”
On his left thigh, Nelson has a large tattoo of a set of open canine teeth with the words “fortis fortuna adiuvat,” which means “fortune favors the bold,” above the top set of teeth. In between the top and bottom teeth, the name of Nelson’s K9, “Koen,” appears bold in all caps.
“In the halls of Valhalla where the brave shall live forever,” encircles a Norse symbol for protection on Nelson’s left calf.
The recently released photos also show all of the tattoos on Nelson’s chest, some of which were redacted previously. One of the previously redacted tattoos, located on Nelson’s stomach and written in an Old English font is the phrase: “Only evil need fear me. The shadow is mine and so is the valley.”
Just below his neckline, Nelson has a tattoo that reads “one day as a lion” — this is part of the quote by fascist dictator Benito Mussolini: “It is better to live one day as a lion than 100 years as a sheep.” The quote was also tweeted by former President Donald Trump in 2016.
The prosecution argued that some of the tattoos, when paired with previous statements made by Nelson and his history of excessive use of force, show Nelson had a “common scheme or plan” that he carried out when he shot and killed Sarey.
Nelson’s plan, according to the prosecution, was to use excessive force against people who were suspected of a minor crime and disrespectful or disobedient toward Nelson. The prosecution referred to the report by former Seattle Police Chief James Pugel, who found over a dozen incidents in which Nelson escalated situations to use unnecessary force.
Larson brought up audio in which Nelson can be heard saying, “I take the biggest and baddest and make an example out of them,” as further evidence of this plan.
The prosecution argued that as part of his plan Nelson exaggerated the threat each person posed in order to justify his use of force in his official police reports.
Nelson’s defense attorney, Emma Scanlan, argued the incidents of Nelson’s previous use of force that the prosecution was referring to did not constitute evidence of a plan because they were all different compared to each other and compared to the killing of Sarey.
The crimes allegedly committed by the suspects were different; the suspects themselves were of different ages, genders and ethnicities; and the force Nelson used was different, so therefore there was no plan, Scanlan argued.
Due to conflicting schedules, processing evidence and expert testimony, the trial is likely going to be delayed even further. During previous hearings, the defense and prosecution agreed to begin jury selection during the week after Thanksgiving. However, on Aug. 31, Larson said that wouldn’t work.
During the hearing, the prosecution, on behalf of the Sarey family, informed the court that Jesse Sarey’s younger brother, Torell, died at the age of 28 earlier in August. Jesse’s biological mom died in June 2021.
Elaine Simons, who fostered Torell and Jesse, said the Sarey family is literally dying while waiting for the trial, which keeps getting delayed. Torell previously spoke with the Auburn Reporter about his older brother Jesse’s life. In honor of Torell’s life, Simons created a fundraiser for Treehouse, a nonprofit serving kids in foster care. You can find more information about the fundraiser here.