A police officer in a Seattle suburb was charged on Thursday with murdering a man outside a grocery store under a new state law that makes it easier to hold the police accountable for the unjustified use of deadly force.
The officer, Jeffrey Nelson, was the first police officer to be charged by prosecutors in King County, Wash., under the law, which was approved in 2018 by Washington State voters, prosecutors said.
Prosecutors said that Officer Nelson, 41, had shot and killed Jesse Sarey, 26, while trying to arrest him on a disorderly-conduct charge outside Sunshine Grocery in Auburn, Wash., on May 31, 2019. The entire encounter lasted 67 seconds and was captured on nearby surveillance video, prosecutors said.
Officer Nelson “needlessly provoked the circumstances that led to Mr. Sarey’s death,” by failing to de-escalate the situation, not waiting for backup, laying his hands on Mr. Nelson after 38 seconds and then fatally shooting him 29 second later, prosecutors said.
Alan Harvey, a lawyer for Officer Nelson, said his client had acted in self-defense after Mr. Sarey grabbed for his gun. “When we have the opportunity to get in front of a jury, they will do the right thing and find that my client did not commit any crimes,” Mr. Harvey said.
The charges came amid heightened scrutiny of police violence after the killing in May of George Floyd in the custody of the Minneapolis police.
In Mississippi this month, three police officers were indicted on second-degree murder charges and accused of killing a Black man last year by body-slamming him to the ground and then beating him, prosecutors said. Last month, two Oklahoma police officers were charged with second-degree murder after they used Tasers more than 50 times on a man who later died, according to court records.
Prosecutors did not indicate that race had played a role in the shooting of Mr. Sarey, who was Asian, by Officer Nelson, who is white.
Dan Satterberg, the King County prosecuting attorney, said that before the shooting, Officer Nelson had asked Mr. Sarey, who was clearly under the influence of drugs, to leave a Walgreens. Mr. Sarey left but jaywalked across the street to Sunshine Grocery, where Officer Nelson decided to arrest him, Mr. Satterberg said.
Officer Nelson called for backup but did not wait for more officers to arrive before confronting Mr. Sarey, prosecutors said. According to the first 38 seconds of video footage of the encounter, prosecutors said, Officer Nelson left his patrol car and told Mr. Sarey that he was under arrest.
Over the next six seconds, Officer Nelson intensified his efforts to arrest Mr. Nelson by trying to physically subdue him, prosecutors said. Officer Nelson then punched Mr. Sarey seven times in the head and upper body, Mr. Satterberg said.
After a witness leaned down to pick up Officer Nelson’s closed folding knife, which had fallen to the ground, Officer Nelson was seen pushing Mr. Sarey against a freezer box while drawing his gun, prosecutors said.
Officer Nelson then fired one shot into Mr. Sarey’s torso, cleared a round that had jammed in his gun, and fired another shot into Mr. Sarey’s forehead 3.4 seconds later, prosecutors said. At that point, Mr. Sarey had fallen backward and was on his behind, prosecutors said.
Just over two minutes later, other Auburn officers arrived. One of them gave Mr. Sarey medical attention until paramedics arrived, prosectors said in court documents.
Mr. Sarey was taken to Harborview Medical Center in Seattle, where he died in the operating room, prosectors said. A toxicology report found that Mr. Sarey’s blood had tested positive for methamphetamine, according to court documents.
Mr. Satterberg said the decision to charge Officer Nelson with second-degree murder and first-degree assault reflected changes brought by Initiative 940, which was overwhelmingly approved by Washington State voters in 2018 and began to take effect in cases beginning last year. The initiative redefined when deadly force would be justified, making it clear that there should be an increased role for juries to decide whether such force constitutes a crime, Mr. Satterberg said.
For cases that happened before 2019, state law required prosecutors to show that an officer had acted with “malice” and a lack of good faith, he said. That was essentially an impossible standard to meet, he said. Initiative 940 created a new legal standard centered on what a “reasonable officer” would do in similar circumstances, Mr. Satterberg said.
“We know there will be questions about how older cases could have been handled differently, or if this means all police shootings going forward will lead to criminal charges,” Mr. Satterberg said in a statement. “The answer is we look at each case individually, and follow the law as it’s written at the time.”
Officer Nelson, who has been a member of the Auburn Police Department for more than 11 years, will appear in court next week and will be placed on paid administrative leave while his case is pending, Mr. Harvey said. Prosecutors said they did not plan to ask for bail but would ask that Officer Nelson not have access to firearms.
Officer Nelson has used deadly force in two previous cases, Mr. Harvey said, but prosectors said that the officer’s record had not factored into their decision to charge him with murdering Mr. Sarey, which was based solely on the evidence.
Mr. Harvey said that he had “grave concerns” about the decision to charge Officer Nelson, who he said had been engaged in the sort of “one-on-one contact that officers do every day.” He said that Mr. Sarey had grabbed for Officer Nelson’s gun after the officer had given him verbal commands. He said the two had then fought as Officer Nelson sought to make a lawful arrest.
Joseph Rome, a lawyer for Mr. Sarey’s family, said the past year had been “exceptionally challenging” for the family.
“They are very pleased that Officer Nelson is ultimately going to be brought to justice,” Mr. Rome said in an email. “However, they realize these charges will not bring their beloved Jesse back or fill the void in their hearts. The Sarey family is resilient and united in achieving justice for Jesse and others like him.”
The Auburn Police Department said in a statement that “the loss of life is tragic, and we extend our sympathy to the Sarey family and the community.”
“We, the City of Auburn, acknowledge that this is an important time to do internal work and reflection coupled with community engagement,” the department said.