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Listen: How a King County Jury will decide whether to convict an Auburn officer of murder

Auburn Police Officer Jeffrey Nelson, center, is flanked by two of his defense attorneys as Nelson's murder trial gets underway, Thursday, May 16, 2024 in Kent, Wash. On the left is Tim Leary, to the right is Emma Scanlan. Nelson is charged with murder in the death of a 26-year-old man outside a convenience store.
Ken Lambert
Pool Photo/The Seattle Times
Auburn Police Officer Jeffrey Nelson, center, is flanked by two of his defense attorneys as Nelson's murder trial gets underway, Thursday, May 16, 2024 in Kent, Wash. On the left is Tim Leary, to the right is Emma Scanlan. Nelson is charged with murder in the death of a 26-year-old man outside a convenience store.

A King County jury is deliberating over whether to convict Auburn police officer Jeff Nelson of murder for fatally shooting Jesse Sarey in May 2019. Nelson’s is the second murder trial of Washington police officers since voter Initiative 940 removed the burden of proving an officer acted with malicious intent.

KNKX All Things Considered host Emil Moffatt recently spoke with KNKX reporter Jared Brown about the factors going into the jury's decision. Brown has watched Nelson's trial closely and covered the first trial of Washington officers since I-940 for KNKX's podcast,The Walk Home, about Manny Ellis' 2020 death in Tacoma police custody.

Click "Listen" above to hear their conversation.


Note: This transcript is provided for reference only and may contain typos. Please confirm accuracy before quoting.

KNKX Host Emil Moffatt: So Jared, can you remind us how the interaction between officer Jeff Nelson and Jesse Sarey started?

KNKX Reporter Jared Brown: So, on May 31, 2019, Officer Nelson gets called out to a commercial area along one of the main roads in Auburn. There had been several 911 calls about [26-year-old] Jesse Sarey. He'd been throwing rocks, kicking at walls of stores, kicking cars, throwing garbage... that sort of thing. People thought he might have been in mental distress, maybe intoxicated. Nelson shows up and initially talks to him in a parking lot, and then he follows him across the street to a strip mall.

Moffatt: OK, so it sounds pretty routine so far. What happened next?

Brown: Right. So Sarey is sitting against the wall of a convenience store in this strip mall. He’d been digging through a cardboard box of trash for something to drink. Nelson decides he's going to arrest Sarey and backup is on the way but he decides he's not going to wait. And that is what the prosecution says is Nelson's first fatal mistake is not waiting for his backup.

Here’s the audio recorded on Nelson’s microphone that was presented to the jury. The officer’s K-9 is in his backseat barking.

Nelson: “I told you to stop kicking stuff, stop throwin' stuff, right? … OK, so now you gotta put your hands behind your back, OK?"

Sarey: "I’m not kicking anything though… I'm not kicking anything."

Brown: Sarey wouldn’t get up though. He has a can in his hand that Nelson tells him to put down and Sarey just doesn’t respond. Then it gets physical… The officer’s attorneys say witnesses described Sarey standing up, them meeting him face-to-face. The prosecution says the video shows Officer Nelson grabbing Sarey's shoulder and pulling him up.

Sarey: "You need to stop pushin' me, bro. … Keep your hands off me!”

Moffatt: So what happens after that?

Brown: The two of them grapple until Sarey apparently touches Nelson’s holstered handgun. And Nelson reacts by stepping back, he punches Sarey in the head several times, and he eventually pulls out his gun. He shoots Sarey once in the stomach, and he clears a jam [in] his gun — you can hear it on the audio — and he shoots Sarey again in the forehead.

Civilian eyewitnesses testified that Sarey falls after that first shot, and he's on the ground when Nelson fires the second time. The officer’s attorneys say that Nelson thought Sarey had grabbed a utility knife that was in his police vest and was going to stab him before he fired the second shot.

Moffatt: So we hear a lot about this voter Initiative 940 a lot in your reporting. What bearing has this new law had on this particular case?

Brown: It's really what made this trial possible. The key piece of law about deadly force went into effect in early 2019, a few months before Nelson shoots and kills Sarey. Nelson is ultimately the first officer charged under the new standard from I-940 that officers are criminally liable if lethal force wasn’t reasonable and necessary.

Moffatt: So how did the new deadly force standard change the arguments that happened at this trial?

Brown: Well, not having to prove an officer acted with bad intentions allowed the prosecutors to hone in on the training Nelson had for dealing with people in mental crisis. So, instead of getting into his thoughts and motives, the prosecution got to compare how he acted to what a theoretical “reasonable” officer should have done in Nelson’s shoes. So their goal is to show the jury that Nelson without a doubt acted far outside policy and had other options besides firing his gun.

Moffatt: And so what did Officer Nelson’s attorneys say about what happened in this case?

Brown: The officers' attorneys are asking the jury to focus on the fact that Nelson's making split-second decisions and that he's trained to react to a potential threat before something happens. They say Nelson did follow his training by beating Sarey off of his gun and shooting him when he felt his life was threatened and there was no other way to end the threat.

Moffatt: And we think back to the Tacoma officers who were acquitted in Manny Ellis’ death, also tried under this same standard, right?

Brown: That’s right. And in theory, Nelson’s case has a much clearer path to a conviction. Unlike in Ellis’ death [in March 2020], there’s video and audio and multiple witnesses, for the entire encounter between Sarey and Nelson. But it's still, even with all of this extra additional evidence, it's still going to be a really difficult case to prove for the prosecution.

Moffatt: And why is that?

Brown: Well, at the end of the day, you’re still asking 12 random people to question the better judgment of a sworn police officer and agree unanimously that the officer had no credible reason to believe a person resisting arrest was a threat to their life. Nelson had probable cause to take Sarey to jail for disorderly conduct, a misdemeanor, so he had some authority to use force.

The jury also has to imagine Nelson’s perspective at the time and think about how he would have perceived things during the rapid struggle, like his knife falling out of his vest or Sarey touching his holstered gun.

Moffatt: What so are you watching for next?

Brown: The only thing we’ll hear out of court until the verdict is if the jury has questions about the law. That could suggest some concepts the jury is struggling with, some concepts that they're really deliberating over. Otherwise, these deliberations could stretch past the Fourth of July.

Moffatt: KNKX reporter Jared Brown, thanks for joining us.

Brown: Thanks, Emil.

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.
Emil Moffatt joined KNKX in October 2022 as All Things Considered host/reporter. He came to the Puget Sound area from Atlanta where he covered the state legislature, the 2021 World Series and most recently, business and technology as a reporter for WABE. Contact him at