On Aug. 24 in a courtroom at the King County Regional Justice Center in Kent, Auburn Police Officer Jeff Nelson pleaded not guilty to felony counts of 2nd-degree murder and first-degree assault in connection with the May 31, 2019 shooting death of 26-year-old Jesse Sarey in 2019 outside of a north Auburn convenience store.
The Superior Court Judge set Nelson’s bail at $500,000 and ordered him to jail, where he’ll be until his trial unless he makes bail.
Nelson had been free on paid administrative leave since the shooting.
On Aug. 20, King County Prosecuting Attorney Dan Satterberg announced his office would file the felony charges: second-degree murder for the first shot fired into Sarey’s torso; and first-degree assault for the second shot into Sarey’s head.
Satterberg said that on the fatal day, Nelson did not follow his training in several ways: he did not de-escalate the situation; and he did not wait for backup. Instead, within 38 seconds of arriving, Nelson went hands-on with Sarey, and 29 seconds later, fired the first of the two shots into Sarey’s torso, followed four seconds later by the shot into his head as he was falling backwards, according to charging documents.
“As our experts — one a former chief in Idaho and another a former deputy chief in California — determined, Officer Nelson created the very situation that brought about his use of deadly force,” Satterberg said.
Auburn police handed the case to the prosecutor’s office in November 2019 and began to bring in experts to sift the events of that evening, including, crucially, evidence provided by the dashcam video in Nelson’s patrol car. That analysis was not completed until March, and use-of-force experts finished their reports in June, Satterberg said.
“Our decision in this case is based entirely on the investigation of the Valley Investigations Team and the opinions provided by our experts,” Satterberg said. “We felt it was critical to understand all the events depicted in the video. To do that well required expertise. Use-of-force experts were also essential to help understand the intersection between police training/tactics and the new legal standard that focuses on whether an officer’s use of deadly force is ‘reasonable.’”
Satterberg provided the following breakdown of the key elements of the video analysis, which, he said, closely tracks the Auburn Police Department’s Certification for Determination of Probable Cause:
• The first 38-second segment shows Nelson leave his patrol car and verbally confront Sarey, informing him that he is under arrest for disorderly conduct.
• Over the next 6 seconds, Nelson intensifies his efforts to effect an arrest, seeking to physically subdue Sarey;
• The next segment shows Nelson and Sarey struggling, and Nelson launches a series of seven punches toward Sarey’s head and upper body;
• In the fourth video segment, a witness leans down out of view of the video to pick up Officer Nelson’s closed folding knife, which had fallen to the ground and landed near his feet. Officer Nelson is seen pushing Sarey against a freezer box as he draws his weapon with his right hand and bending to his right, fires one shot into Sarey’s torso, clears a jammed round, and fires another shot into Sarey’s forehead 3.44 seconds later. Sarey was seated, falling backward with his legs and feet toward Officer Nelson when the second shot was fired into his head.
Satterberg said the charges are not related to the death of George Floyd — a Black man who died under the knee of a Minneapolis police officer earlier this year — or the highly charged social and political atmosphere Floyd’s death has engendered.
“We know,” Satterberg said, “that many people will ask: Why this case? Why now? Our process in this case has been ongoing for more than a year, and it began well before the death of George Floyd. Our decision today reflects the changes brought by Initiative 940, which was overwhelmingly approved by voters statewide. Those changes in the law, which affects cases from 2019 onward, make it clear that there should be an increased role for juries to decide whether a particular application of deadly force by law enforcement constitutes a crime.”
For cases that happened before 2019, Satterberg said, state law required prosecutors to show that an officer acted with “malice” and a lack of good faith, which he called a nearly impossible standard to meet.
“We know that we are at the start of a long process with this case. We also know that not everyone will agree with this decision. What we hope is that the public will review the details of the case themselves, and we will continue to share updates publicly. We are looking forward to presenting this evidence to a jury who will make the ultimate decision about criminal liability,” Satterberg said.
The city of Auburn has released the following statement.
“The loss of life is tragic, and we extend our sympathy to the Sarey family and the community. We, the City of Auburn, acknowledge that this is an important time to do internal work and reflection coupled with community engagement. Since this is now an active legal matter, we cannot comment further at this time, and asked that all questions about this matter be directed to the prosecutor’s office,” the city said.
In a press release on Friday, the Washington State Fraternal Order of Police threw its support behind Officer Nelson.
“The Washington State Fraternal Order of Police is aware of the recent charges brought against FOP member and Auburn Police Officer Jeff Nelson regarding the May 2019 shooting death of Jesse Sarey,” the release began. “The WAFOP stands with the Auburn Police Officer’s Guild and the City of Auburn in their support of Officer Nelson in this case.
“Recently, the law has changed under I-940, which the WAFOP was a part of drafting,” WAFOP President Marco Monteblanco was quoted as saying in the release. “The purpose of the change was to promote transparency and accountability. We are encouraged that our member will see his day in court, and we are confident that the criminal justice system will do what it was designed to do.
“As law enforcement officers, the public rightly demands that we gather all available evidence and conduct a thorough investigation prior to making a judgement on arresting someone and taking away their civil liberties. In times like this, all we ask is the same in return,” the release concluded.