Apr 23, 2024 - News

Officer's murder trial under new law begins

Illustration of a police badge in the tray of the scales of justice.

Illustration: Lindsey Bailey/Axios

Jury selection for the trial of the first officer in Washington state to be charged with murder under a new legal standard for police began Monday.

Why it matters: Auburn police's Jeffrey Nelson was charged in connection with the death of 26-year-old Jesse Sarey in 2020 under the law created by Initiative 940.

  • The initiative revised an earlier state statute that made it almost impossible to criminally charge police who kill in the line of duty.
  • It was approved by voters in 2018 and means that prosecutors no longer need to prove an officer acted with evil intent, or malice.
  • Nelson has pleaded not guilty to first-degree assault and second-degree murder, which is the charge when a person causes the death of another with intent but without premeditation, according to state law.

Flashback: Other officers were charged later under the new law but received earlier trials. Tacoma officers Christopher Burbank and Matthew Collins were charged in 2021 with second-degree murder and first-degree manslaughter in connection with the death of Manuel Ellis.

  • A third Tacoma officer, Timothy Rankine, was charged with first-degree manslaughter in connection with Ellis' death.
  • All three Tacoma officers were acquitted by a jury in December.

Driving the news: Nelson's trial is being held at the Maleng Regional Justice Center in Kent before King County Superior Court Judge Nicole Gaines Phelps.

What they're saying: Charging documents allege Nelson shot Sarey twice during an attempted arrest for disorderly conduct outside an Auburn grocery store on May 31, 2019.

  • Witnesses had called 911 to report Sarey was throwing items and kicking walls and vehicles, per court documents.
  • Nelson spoke to Sarey and believed he was on drugs, according to documents. When Sarey walked away, Nelson followed, per the documents.

The 67-second fatal struggle between Nelson and Sarey was captured by video surveillance and audio recording, per the documents.

  • "That struggle unfolded in a series of quick, escalating interactions and ended with Officer Nelson shooting Mr. Sarey twice," prosecutors wrote in the charging document.
  • The charging document cites a detailed statement by Nelson in which he writes that Sarey had taken his knife, that he saw the blade and that he thought Sarey was going to stab him.
  • Prosecutors allege in the documents that a witness had picked up a knife that dropped on the ground two seconds before Nelson fired his first shot.

What we're watching: The trial is expected to last several weeks. If convicted, Nelson faces a sentence of 10 to 18 years in prison, per King County prosecutors.


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