Murder of Auburn Police Officer Trial Tests New State Law for Police Misconduct

A police officer in Washington is going to trial for murder, which is the first time this has happened under a new legal standard for police misconduct. The process of choosing the jury is set to start on April 22 for the trial of Auburn police officer Jeffrey Nelson.

In August 2020, former King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg accused Nelson of committing second-degree murder and first-degree assault in the death of 26-year-old Jesse Sarey. Nelson tackled and eventually shot Sarey while attempting to arrest him for disorderly conduct.

Sarey’s previous foster mother, Elaine Simons, mentioned that there has been a significant delay in reaching this trial date. “The Sarey family needs resolution, and Officer Nelson does too,” she said. “Four years feels like a long time for everyone.”

Simons said that for her and the supporters of the Sarey family, the resolution they are seeking is Nelson’s criminal conviction. Nelson stated that he thought Sarey was trying to grab the officer’s gun.

The trial is considered a significant test of Initiative 940, which was approved by voters in 2018. The initiative aimed to eliminate a perceived obstacle in prosecuting police officers for the improper use of deadly force.

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The law removed the need to show “malice” from police officers. Prosecutors need to convince jurors that using deadly force was not reasonable or necessary. Judge Nicole Gaines Phelps is presiding over the case at the Maleng Regional Justice Center in Kent, which is part of the King County Superior Court. The duration is expected to be several weeks.

Judge Gaines has already decided that the trial testimony will not include information about Officer Nelson’s tattoos, which could be seen as supporting police violence, and his past instances of using deadly force. The court has decided not to consider information about Sarey’s past drug use and public intoxication.

In a court document filed on April 16, Nelson’s defense team agreed with prosecutors not to mention the sources of funding for their legal case. It was revealed that King County hired the law firm Morgan Lewis, while the Fraternal Order of Police is covering the costs of Nelson’s defense.

The lawyers are also discussing the political aspects of the case in the courtroom. Prosecutors want to ask potential jurors if they believe that prosecutors are too quick to give in to public pressure when deciding whether to file charges.

The defense argued that it is reasonable to ask jurors about their opinions on how the criminal justice system handles cases involving police officers shooting civilians. The defense team objected to restrictions on their ability to investigate possible bias among potential jurors regarding the decision to charge police officers with murder for shootings that occurred while on duty.

Defense lawyers have stated that the questions approved for jurors already cover whether they have been part of organizations that support law enforcement, organizations that support defunding the police, or organizations that support the Black Lives Matter movement.

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