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Prosecutors say Washington officer charged with murder ignored his training in killing man in 2019

KENT, Wash. — (AP) — A suburban Seattle police officer ignored his training and unnecessarily resorted to deadly force when he shot and killed a man outside a convenience store in 2019, prosecutors said as the officer's murder trial opened Thursday.

Auburn Police Officer Jeff Nelson shot Jesse Sarey twice while attempting to arrest him for disorderly conduct. Sarey, 26, was the third person Nelson had killed on duty in the past eight years.

Nelson's attorney, Emma Scanlan, told jurors during her opening statement that he believed — mistakenly — that Sarey had grabbed a folding knife from the officer's pocket. Instead, the knife had fallen on the ground and been picked up by a witness.

Every day for the last five years, Nelson has wished that he knew the knife was not in play as he grappled with Sarey: “We wouldn’t be here if he had,” she said, according to The Seattle Times.

The case is the second to go to trial since Washington voters in 2018 made it easier to charge police by removing a standard that required prosecutors to prove they acted with malice; now, prosecutors must 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.

Sarey, who was homeless and had struggled with his mental health and substance use, had reportedly been throwing things at cars and creating a disturbance, though not threatening anyone, on May 31, 2019, when Nelson responded.

King County Special Prosecutor Angelo Calfo told the jury that Nelson ignored his training, which required him to use time, distance and cover, cardinal rules of de-escalation and officer safety.

Instead of waiting for backup, Nelson grabbed Sarey from where he had been sitting on the pavement and drinking from cups that had been thrown away; instead of keeping his distance and using cover, he approached Sarey and stood over him, Calfo said.

When Sarey failed to comply with Nelson's commands to put his hands behind his back, Nelson grabbed him and started wrestling with him and punching him. Nelson shoved him against an icebox, pulled out his gun and shot him in the abdomen, Calfo said.

“Not to excuse Mr. Sarey's conduct — he should have complied,” Calfo said. “But a police officer should use his training to avoid the need to use force. That's not what happened.”

Sarey slumped to the ground, reclining backward. Nelson then cleared a jammed round out of his gun, glanced at a nearby witness, turned back to Sarey and shot him again — this time in the forehead, video of the encounter shows.

Like the first, Calfo said, the second shot was unjustified: “He could have done a million things other than shoot this man in the head.”

Nelson’s attorney told the jury that he will testify during the trial. He has been waiting five years to say exactly what happened on that day, Scanlan said, including feeling during the struggle that Sarey had grabbed for his gun.

Nelson said in a written statement after the shooting that he believed Sarey had a knife and posed a threat before the first shot — and that Sarey was on his knees in a “squatting fashion … ready to spring forward” before the officer fired again. Nelson has pleaded not guilty to charges of second-degree murder and first-degree assault.

An Iraq war veteran, Nelson joined the department in 2008.

The city of Auburn paid Sarey's family $4 million to settle a civil rights claim and has paid nearly $2 million more to settle other litigation over Nelson's actions as a police officer.

The trial, before King County Superior Court Judge Nicole Gaines Phelps at the Norm Maleng Regional Justice Center in Kent, is expected to last several weeks. Gaines has ruled that jurors will not hear evidence about Nelson’s prior uses of deadly force.

In one of those earlier cases, the city of Auburn agreed to pay $1.25 million to the family of a different man killed by Nelson, Isaiah Obet. Obet had been reportedly breaking into houses and attempting to carry out a carjacking with a knife when Nelson confronted him in 2017.

Nelson released his police dog, which bit Obet, and then shot the man in the torso. Obet, on the ground and still fighting off the police dog, started to try to get back up, and Nelson shot him again, in the head, police said. The department hailed Nelson's actions as protecting the community.

In another incident, Nelson shot and killed Brian Scaman, a Vietnam veteran with mental issues and a history of felonies, in 2011 after pulling Scaman over for a burned-out headlight. Scaman got out of his car with a knife and refused to drop it; Nelson shot him in the head. An inquest jury cleared Nelson of any wrongdoing.