First officer is convicted of murder since Washington state law eased prosecution of police

A jury found a suburban Seattle police officer guilty of murder Thursday in the 2019 shooting death of a homeless man outside a convenience store, marking the first conviction under a Washington state law easing prosecution of law enforcement officers for on-duty killings.

After deliberating for three days, the jury found Auburn Police Officer Jeffrey Nelson guilty of second-degree murder and first-degree assault for shooting Jesse Sarey twice while trying to arrest him for disorderly conduct. Deliberations had been halted for several hours Wednesday after the jury sent the judge an incomplete verdict form Tuesday saying they were unable to reach an agreement on one of the charges.

The judge revealed Thursday that the verdict the jury was struggling with earlier in the week was the murder charge. They had already reached agreement on the assault charge.

Nelson was taken into custody after the hearing. He's been on paid administrative leave since the shooting in 2019. The judge set sentencing for July 16. Nelson faces up to life in prison on the murder charge and up to 25 years for first-degree assault. His lawyer said she plans to file a motion for a new trial.

Elaine Simons, who had been Sarey's foster mother, said the guilty verdicts provided resolution and peace for his family. Sarey was the son of survivors of the Khmer Rouge genocide in Cambodia and became homeless after aging out of foster care, his family said.

“This has been a long five years for a semblance of justice,” she told The Associated Press. “It has set a precedent for police officers to do what is right. The citizens of Auburn can have a sense of safety.”

Auburn settled a civil rights claim by Sarey’s family for $4 million and has paid nearly $2 million more to settle other litigation over Nelson’s actions as a police officer.

Gary Damon, executive director of the Washington Coalition for Police Accountability, a group led by families who have lost loved ones to police violence, said the verdict was a significant step toward greater accountability for officers. Leslie Cushman, who was involved in the campaign to change the state's law to make it easier to charge officers, said the trial was profoundly important.

“Had this gone the other way, we would have had a serious disillusionment,” Cushman said. “This is good news and affirming for all who stand for justice.”

The King County Prosecuting Attorney's office thanked the jury for their efforts on the case, which has gone on for more than three weeks.

“We appreciate the hard work of all parties to get to these important verdicts,” spokesman Casey McNerthney said in an email. “All along we felt this was a case that needed to be tried before a jury. Our thoughts continue to be with Mr. Sarey’s loved ones.”

Prosecutors said Nelson punched Sarey several times before shooting him in the abdomen. About three seconds later, Nelson shot Sarey in the forehead. Nelson had claimed Sarey tried to grab his gun and a knife, so he shot him in self-defense, but video showed Sarey was on the ground reclining away from Nelson after the first shot.

The case was the second to go to trial since Washington voters in 2018 removed a standard that required prosecutors to prove an officer acted with malice — a standard no other state had. Now they must show the level of force was unreasonable or unnecessary. In December, jurors acquitted three Tacoma police officers in the 2020 death of Manuel Ellis.

Nelson had responded to reports of a man throwing things at cars, kicking walls and banging on windows in a shopping area in Auburn, a city of 70,000 about 28 miles (45 kilometers) south of Seattle. Callers said the man appeared to be high or having mental health issues.

Nelson confronted Sarey in front of the store and attempted to get him into handcuffs. When Sarey resisted, Nelson tried to take Sarey down with a hip-throw and then punched him seven times. He pinned Sarey against the wall, pulled out his gun and shot him. Sarey fell to the ground.

Nelson’s gun jammed, he cleared it, looked around and then aimed at Sarey’s forehead, firing once more.

A witness, Steven Woodard, testified that after the first shot, “Mr. Sarey was ‘done,’ lying on the ground in a nonthreatening position.”

Nelson claimed Sarey tried to grab his gun, leading to the first shot. He said he believed Sarey had possession of his knife during the struggle and said he shot him in self-defense. Authorities have said the interaction lasted 67 seconds.

“Jesse Sarey died because this defendant chose to disregard his training at every step of the way,” King County Special Prosecutor Patty Eakes told the jury in her closing argument Thursday. The shooting was “unnecessary, unreasonable and unjustified,” she said.

Nelson’s attorney, Kristen Murray, told the jury officers are allowed to defend themselves.

“When Mr. Sarey went for Officer Nelson’s gun, he escalated it to a lethal encounter,” she said.

Sarey was the third person Nelson has killed in his law enforcement career. Jurors did not hear evidence about Nelson’s prior uses of deadly force.

Prior to fatally shooting Sarey, Nelson killed Isaiah Obet in 2017. Obet was acting erratically, and Nelson ordered his police dog to attack. He then shot Obet in the torso. Obet fell to the ground, and Nelson fired again, fatally shooting Obet in the head. Police said the officer’s life was in danger because Obet was high on drugs and had a knife. The city reached a settlement of $1.25 million with Obet’s family.

In 2011, Nelson fatally shot Brian Scaman, a Vietnam War veteran with mental issues and a history of felonies, after pulling Scaman’s vehicle over for a burned-out headlight. Scaman got out of his car with a knife and refused to drop it; Nelson shot him in the head. An inquest jury cleared Nelson of wrongdoing.