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Trial of Auburn police officer in death of Jesse Sarey sent to jury

Auburn Police Officer Jeffrey Nelson, center, attends closing arguments at Maleng Regional Justice Center in Kent, Wash. Thursday, June 20, 2024.
Erika Schultz
Pool Photo via The Seattle Times
Auburn Police Officer Jeffrey Nelson, center, attends closing arguments at Maleng Regional Justice Center in Kent, Wash. Thursday, June 20, 2024.

Attorneys delivered closing arguments on Thursday in the murder trial of Auburn police Officer Jeff Nelson for fatally shooting Jesse Sarey in May 2019. The jury is scheduled to start deliberations Friday and resume next week.

Nelson is one of a handful of police officers in the last century to face murder charges for a death in their custody. Nelson’s prosecution was made possible by Initiative 940, a police accountability passed by voters in 2018. Before that change to state law, prosecutors had to prove that an officer used deadly force with malice, or evil intent.

"Using deadly force here, an arrest for a nonviolent misdemeanor, disorderly conduct, with an unarmed person was not reasonable under the law," said King County special prosecutor Patty Eakes during closing arguments. "And as a result, based on the evidence that you’ve heard you should find him guilty of murder in the second-degree."

Eakes is a former King County deputy prosecutor who was hired to try Nelson for felony murder based on a deadly first-degree assault. Eakes also prosecuted the three former Tacoma police officers acquitted last year of killing Manny Ellis in March 2020. That trial likely wouldn’t have happened without the passage of I-940.

Nelson's trial concluded weeks ahead of schedule after Nelson's defense rested on Monday without calling the officer and several other witnesses.

On Thursday, the packed courtroom left some observers standing in the back of the room. Auburn Police Chief Mark Caillier sat in a uniform couple of rows behind Nelson. Sarey's primary advocate, Elaine Simons, who was a foster mother for his younger brother, scribbled notes in the same seat she's used for weeks. One of Sarey's younger half brothers also watched from the pews.

Defense attorney Kristen Murray told the jury that the state's evidence against Nelson proved the officer acted reasonably, so they didn't feel the need to call more witnesses. Last week, prosecutors warned that they would question one of the planned witnesses, Auburn police Commander Cristian Adams, about a misconduct investigation involving Nelson.

“This was a tragedy, but it’s not a crime," Murray told the jury.

Murray argued to the jury that Nelson had to make a split-second decision because he thought Sarey was armed with a knife that fell off his police vest and had grabbed at his holstered gun.

"Police officers are trained that they don't have to wait for someone to actually harm them before they can react," Murray said. "Police officers have the right to defend themselves just like all of us."

Nelson shot Sarey once in the abdomen, cleared a jam in his gun and fired a second shot at Sarey’s head, according to video footage and eyewitness testimony.

In a rebuttal argument, special prosecutor Angelo Calfo addressed the officer’s time to react before opening fire.

"Did the defendant only have a second to shoot?" Calfo asked the jury. "He had an eternity to wait. He could have waited an hour. There was nothing happening."

Sarey died from the first gunshot to his liver at the hospital. Prosecutors also argued Nelson should have recognized Sarey was in mental distress and waited for his back-up to de-escalate the situation.

Jared Brown was a Poynter Media and Journalism Fellow based at KNKX covering the intersections of policing, courts and power with a focus on accountability and solutions.