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First officer convicted of murder since Washington passed law making it easier to prosecute police

First officer convicted of murder since Washington passed law making it easier to prosecute 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 that makes it easier to prosecute officers law enforcement for service crimes.

After deliberating for three days, a 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 his behavior messy. Deliberations were halted for several hours Wednesday after the jury sent the judge an incomplete verdict form, saying they could not reach an agreement on one of the charges.

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

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

The King County Prosecutor’s Office thanked the jury for their efforts in the case, which has been ongoing for more than three weeks.

“We appreciate the hard work of all parties in reaching these important verdicts,” spokesman Casey McNerthney said in an email. “I felt all along that this was a case that should have been tried by a jury. Our thoughts continue to be with Mr Sarey’s loved ones.”

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

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

Nelson was responding 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 45 kilometers south of Seattle. Callers said the man appeared to be high or have mental health issues.

Sarey was the son of survivors of Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge genocide and became homeless after leaving foster care, his family said.

Nelson confronted Sarey outside the store and tried to handcuff him. When Sarey resisted, Nelson attempted to knock Sarey down with a hip throw and then punched him seven times. He pinned Sarey against the wall, drew his gun and shot him. Sarey fell to the ground.

Nelson’s gun jammed, he disengaged it, looked around, and then aimed at Sarey’s forehead, firing again.

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

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

“Jesse Sarey died because this defendant chose to ignore his training at every turn,” King County Special Prosecutor Patty Eakes said in closing arguments Thursday. The shooting was “unnecessary, unreasonable and unjustified,” she said.

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

“When Mr. Sarey took Officer Nelson’s gun, he turned it into a lethal encounter,” she said.

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

Sarey was the third person Nelson killed in his law enforcement career. Jurors heard no evidence about Nelson’s previous use of deadly force.

Before shooting Sarey, Nelson killed Isaiah Obet in 2017. Obet was acting erratically and Nelson ordered his police dog to attack. Then he shot Obet in the torso. Obet fell to the ground and Nelson fired again, 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 $1.25 million settlement with Obet’s family.

In 2011, Nelson shot and killed Brian Scaman, a mentally challenged Vietnam War veteran with a criminal record, after pulling Scaman’s car over for a burned-out headlight. Scaman got out of the car with a knife and refused to drop it; Nelson shot him in the head. An inquest jury cleared Nelson of wrongdoing.