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News / Northwest

A suburban Seattle police officer faces murder trial in the death of a man outside convenience store

By Associated Press
Published: April 22, 2024, 3:34pm

KENT — Jury selection began Monday in the trial of a suburban Seattle police officer charged with murder in the death of a 26-year-old man outside a convenience store in 2019.

Auburn officer Jeff Nelson shot and killed Jesse Sarey while trying to arrest him for disorderly conduct in an interaction that lasted just 67 seconds, authorities said. Sarey was the third person Nelson has killed while on duty.

Citing surveillance video from nearby businesses, prosecutors said Nelson wrestled with Sarey, repeatedly punched him in the head and shot him twice. As Sarey was wounded and reclined on the ground from the first shot, which struck his upper abdomen, Nelson cleared a jammed round out of his gun, glanced at a nearby witness, turned back to Sarey and shot him again — this time in the forehead, prosecutors said.

The case is the second to go to trial since Washington voters in 2018 made it easier to charge police by removing a standard that required prosecutors to prove they acted with malice; now, prosecutors must show that the level of force was unreasonable or unnecessary. In December, voters acquitted three Tacoma police officers in the 2020 death of Manuel Ellis.

Nelson later said in a written statement that he believed Sarey had a knife and posed a threat before the first shot — and that Sarey was on his knees in a “squatting fashion … ready to spring forward” before the officer fired again. He has pleaded not guilty to charges of second-degree murder and first-degree assault.

An Iraq war veteran, Nelson joined the department in 2008.

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

In one case, the city of Auburn agreed to pay $1.25 million to the family of a different man killed by Nelson, Isaiah Obet.

Obet had been reportedly breaking into houses and attempting to carry out a carjacking with a knife when Nelson confronted him in 2017. Nelson released his police dog, which bit Obet, and then shot the man in the torso. Obet, on the ground and still fighting off the police dog, started to try to get back up, and Nelson shot him again, in the head, police said.

Lawyers for Obet’s family said he posed no threat to anyone when he was shot.

Nelson also shot and killed Brian Scaman, a Vietnam veteran with mental issues and a history of felonies, in 2011 after pulling Scaman over for a burned-out headlight. Scaman got out of his car with a knife and refused to drop it.

The trial, before King County Superior Court Judge Nicole Gaines Phelps at the Norm Maleng Regional Justice Center in Kent, is expected to last several weeks.

Gaines has ruled that jurors will not hear evidence about Nelson’s prior uses of deadly force or about Sarey’s history of drug use.

The Washington State Criminal Justice Training Commission, which oversees the certification of police in the state, has moved to discipline and possibly revoke Nelson’s badge, saying he has shown a pattern of “an intentional or reckless disregard for the rights of others.”

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