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Auburn cop found guilty of murder in 2019 death of Jesse Sarey

Jeffrey Nelson, an Auburn police officer who was charged for shooting and killing Jesse Sarey, 26, in 2019, was found guilty of murder and assault on Thursday. Nelson is the first officer in Washington state to be convicted under a new legal standard for holding cops accountable for using deadly force.

Nelson was the first officer in Washington to be charged following the passage of Initiative 940, which removed the standard of proving “malice” to prosecute cops who kill on the job. Nelson was charged with second-degree murder and first-degree assault in 2020.

Nelson’s trial, which had been delayed several times, started in May, five years after Sarey’s death.

RELATED: Auburn officer charged with murder in 2019 police killing, testing new deadly force legal standards

Defense attorneys said Nelson planned to take the stand to share his side of things, but in an unexpected reversal, his attorneys informed the judge last Monday that he wouldn’t testify after all. After calling two witnesses — a records custodian and an expert on the gun holster — the defense rested their case.

During closing arguments, Nelson’s defense said the crucial information they wanted jurors to hear “came out through the state’s own witnesses,” and that the evidence presented showed that Nelson acted lawfully.

Nelson shot Sarey, a Cambodian man, twice in the parking lot of Sunshine Grocery in Auburn in May 2019 as they engaged in a physical struggle. Nelson had been responding to a series of 911 calls about Sarey behaving erratically on the premises of several businesses. Nelson’s defense team claimed that Sarey had tried to grab Nelson’s pistol and a folding knife from Nelson’s pocket during the struggle.

Steven Woodard, an eyewitness who testified, said that during the struggle, one of Sarey’s hands, which were around Nelson’s waist, brushed against the butt of Nelson’s gun. He described Nelson as towering over Sarey, and said Nelson punched Sarey in the face repeatedly as he held him in a headlock.

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Prosecuting Attorney Patty Eakes told jurors that Nelson received crisis intervention training three times but still did not wait for backup or try to de-escalate the encounter before grappling with Sarey and shooting him. She said Nelson “disregarded his training at every step of the way” and could have arrested Sarey without force. “He instead chose to toss that training aside and take the most aggressive path,” she said.

The two charges against Nelson reflect his fatal shot to Sarey's abdomen and a shot to Sarey's forehead, which the King County Medical Examiner determined was not immediately fatal.

The Washington Coalition for Police Accountability, led by advocates for victims of police violence, applauded Thursday's verdict.

“This is what justice looks like. This verdict is meaningful to all families who lost loved ones to police violence, in a system where it has been impossible to bring charges against police for murder until now, and this demonstrates that when community comes together to change laws it balances the justice scale and the possibilities for police accountability," said Sonia Joseph, president of the organization's board, in a written statement.

Joseph, whose 20-year-old son Giovonn Joseph-McDade was shot and killed by Kent Police in 2017, said the group would continue advocating for police accountability measures at the state level.

In a written statement, Washington Fraternal Order of Police President Marco Monteblanco struck a more neutral tone.

“We respect the jury’s verdict in the trial of Auburn Officer Jeffrey Nelson and want to acknowledge the time and effort put into this process by all involved,” Monteblanco said. “Today’s verdict announcement is a milestone in the trial process, but it is by no means the last. We will continue to monitor the next steps as this case moves into a new phase of legal proceedings.”

Nelson's conviction stands in stark contrast to the acquittal of three Tacoma Police officers in December. Christopher Burbank, Matthew Collins, and Timothy Rankine were tried together in the death of 33-year-old Manuel Ellis in 2020. Though State Attorney General Bob Ferguson charged all three Tacoma cops in 2021, a year after Nelson was charged in Sarey's death, the Tacoma officers' trial moved ahead at a faster pace and became the state's first major courtroom test of Initiative 940.

RELATED: 3 Tacoma police officers found not guilty in 2020 death of Manny Ellis

Thursday's verdict came after a week of jury deliberations that were marked by several procedural concerns.

Last week, dozens of fliers were found hung in the courthouse parking garage pointing out Nelson’s two previous deadly force incidents while working for the Auburn Police Department. The court had excluded information about these previous cases from the trial. Judge Nicole Gaines Phelps had expressed concern that jurors seeing the posters could be grounds for a mistrial; no jurors reported seeing the fliers.

RELATED: Mysterious posters in courthouse garage could have jeopardized Auburn police killing case, judge says

On Wednesday, the third day of jury deliberations, Phelps told the courtroom that jurors had indicated Tuesday that they’d reached a consensus on one of the two charges against Nelson. But because the jurors hadn’t properly filled out the verdict forms, Phelps had sent them back to deliberations Tuesday. The defense argued that Phelps, who hadn’t mentioned the jury’s consensus at the time they originally handed in the verdict forms, should have accepted the forms despite the errors.

Also on Wednesday, a King County prosecutor reported hearing two jurors discussing the case in the courtroom hallway before deliberations were planned to resume. That also prompted concern about the integrity of the jury's verdict.

RELATED: Judge retains jury in Auburn cop trial after hallway kerfuffle

Judge Phelps ordered that Nelson be held in custody until sentencing. His defense team said they intend to seek a new trial.

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