Jeffrey Nelson at his trial May 16, 2024. (Photo by Ken Lambert / The Seattle Times / Pool)

Jeffrey Nelson at his trial May 16, 2024. (Photo by Ken Lambert / The Seattle Times / Pool)

Murder trial begins for Auburn Police officer Jeffrey Nelson

First officer in Washington to face a murder charge following the passage of Initiative 940.

Five years after the on-duty shooting of 26-year-old Jesse Sarey by Auburn Police Officer Jeffrey Nelson, jurors heard the opening statements of King County prosecutors and Nelson’s defense team on May 16 — the beginning of a trial expected to span multiple weeks.

Nelson faces two felony charges of murder in the second degree and assault in the first degree for the May 31, 2019, shooting of Sarey that resulted in his death. Nelson is the first officer in Washington to face a murder charge following the passage of Initiative 940, a measure lowering the criminal liability standard for law enforcement for using deadly force.

The first shot Nelson fired into Sarey’s abdomen comprises the murder in the second degree charge, and the second shot into Sarey’s head led to the assault in the first degree charge, the prosecution said in the team’s opening statement to jurors in a courtroom at the Maleng Regional Justice Center in Kent.

The two shots fired served as unjustified, alleged the prosecution team, stating Nelson unnecessarily shot and killed a homeless person.

Nelson’s defense team presented an opening statement to jurors following the prosecution team, stating Nelson’s shooting of Sarey served as non-criminal.

“These are not crimes. This is a tragedy,” Nelson’s team stated.

Prosecutors alleged Nelson “violently punched” Sarey in the fatal interaction and shot Sarey in the abdomen, leaving him on the ground, prior Nelson’s firearm jamming.

With three-and-a-half seconds following the first shot, Nelson reloaded and racked his weapon, scanned the scene, and shot Sarey in the head, prosecutors stated.

Prosecutors stated “there were about a million other things” alternative to shooting Sarey in the head.

Presenting an audiograph marked with timestamps of Nelson racking his firearm and the firing of the shots, Nelson’s defense team stated Nelson “really only had” one-and-a-half seconds, not three-and-a-half seconds, to decide whether to shoot Sarey.

Nelson’s defense team stated Nelson believed Sarey managed to take hold of his knife and served as a threat to his life: “If somebody grabs your gun, if somebody grabs your knife, they are trying to kill you,” Nelson’s defense team said.

Prosecutors stated a witness that stepped out of his vehicle after witnessing the incident retrieved the knife from the ground and set the knife atop the hood of his SUV.

Nelson’s defense stated Nelson never saw the knife fall to the ground, and the witness never informed Nelson of him retrieving the knife.

Nelson believed Sarey possessed the knife and thought Sarey was going to stab him when he fired the first shot, and believed Sarey still had the knife when he fired the second shot, his defense stated.

“It’s technical, it’s complicated, and it’s going to take a long time,” Nelson’s defense team said.

Both teams presented video footage of the shooting to jurors, synced with audio from Nelson’s microphone on his person and detailed various technologies, techniques and testimonies to be presented in following weeks. These range from the defense’s use of reverse photo grammetry (the creation of a 3D digital environment of the scene with a witness to tell the jurors of measurements) to the prosecutorial utilization of two eyewitness testimonies on the scene in front of the grocery store where Nelson shot Sarey.

“There was no justification for firing those two shots,” prosecutors stated.

“At the end of this we are going to ask you to find Officer Nelson not guilty of murder and not guilty of assault,” Nelson’s defense team said.

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