As sunset faded into dusk Thursday, a message was projected onto the facade of Saint Mark’s Episcopal Cathedral: “Jesse Sarey, Isaiah Obet & Brian Scaman Should Still Be Alive Today.”
The three men, forever tied together, were killed by Auburn Police officer Jeffrey Nelson between 2011 and 2019.
About 20 people, mostly Sarey’s family, were gathered and stood facing the names visible to drivers on nearby Interstate 5. Framed pictures of the men, candles and bouquets of flowers were displayed on a table. While a few children played in the church parking lot, it was relatively a somber affair.
Since the anniversary of George Floyd’s murder by Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin on May 25, the cathedral in Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood has transformed into a public monument for the dozens of people killed by Washington law enforcement.
The memorial project, called Projecting Justice, is a collaboration between the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington, Saint Mark’s and Washington Coalition for Police Accountability.
Thursday’s memorial came just hours after a hearing on the murder trial of Nelson in the fatal shooting of Sarey, and several days after the two-year anniversary of his death on May 31.
“Every time we lose somebody it keeps us closer, because we never know who the next person is going to be,” Sarey’s mother, Kari Sarey, said Thursday.
In a routine case-setting hearing earlier that day, King County Superior Court Judge Nicole Phelps agreed to a jointly proposed trial date on Feb. 28. Nelson faces second-degree murder and first-degree assault charges. His new attorney, Emma Scanlan, told the judge the defense team has been presented with discovery that includes more than 30,000 pages of documents, 1,000 audio and video files and 14 gigabytes of other data, including 7,000 separate PDF files.
“We have an enormous amount of evidence,” Scanlan said, adding motions and challenges to either sides’ expert witnesses is pending.
Scanlan is a criminal defense lawyer who helped represent Sgt. Robert Bales. The former Army sniper was court-martialed for the 2012 mass murder of 16 Afghan civilians in Kandahar, Afghanistan, but spared the death penalty.
Nelson did not attend the hearing Thursday. Scanlan declined to comment.
But in attendance were several of Sarey’s family members, including his foster mother, Elaine Simons, and the families of other mostly young Black and Brown men who were killed by Washington police.
Simons held a news conference after with police accountability groups Washington Coalition for Police Accountability and Next Steps Washington to call for justice and an end to racist policing. The speakers flanked a poster of Sarey and stood behind 30 framed photographs of young people killed by law enforcement.
Nelson is the first officer charged under a new law brought about by the citizen’s Initiative 940, which removed language prosecutors said made it virtually impossible to charge a police officer with murder.
Before Nelson, no officer had been charged with killing someone in the line of duty since 1971 — and that case ended in acquittal. Since the charges against Nelson were filed in August, two Tacoma police officers have been charged with second-degree murder, and another with manslaughter for the suffocation death of Manuel Ellis in March 2020.
Nelson had a history of excessive use of force and being disciplined, long before he was charged with Sarey’s murder,
On May 7, 2011, Nelson shot and killed Scaman after he emerged from his car with a knife during a traffic stop. Nelson, who shot Scaman in the back of his left ear, was cleared of any wrongdoing.
His next fatal shooting was on June 10, 2017, when he shot Obet, 25, who allegedly tried to get into a vehicle at an intersection and was armed with a knife. Nelson set his dog on Obet, shot him in the chest and later in the head as he laid on the ground, according to a lawsuit filed last July. The Auburn police department awarded Nelson a Medal of Valor for preventing the carjacking.
Several days before Nelson was charged with Sarey’s murder, the city of Auburn settled a $1.25 million lawsuit filed by Obet’s family.
On the evening of May 31, 2019, Nelson confronted 26-year-old Sarey during a disorderly conduct call that ended with the officer shooting him. Sarey died at Seattle’s Harborview Medical Center later that night.
Grief has marked the past couple of years for Kari Sarey. A month before her son was killed, her husband died. This week, filled with memorials and the court hearing, was overwhelming and frustrating, she said.
“What I want is for [Nelson] to be in prison,” she said during Thursday night’s memorial.
Evenings at Saint Mark’s are reflective affairs mostly consisting of the families of people killed by law enforcement, said ACLU of Washington’s Executive Director Michele Storms. The idea for the project was conceived during talks between the church and ACLU last fall. The Washington Coalition for Police Accountability provided the names of people and equipment was designed and built by racial justice group Spokane Community Against Racism.
The project will continue to draw light to local cases through June 8.
Saint Mark’s has a long tradition of working toward racial justice, such as incubating the nonprofit Northwest Community Bail Fund that began as one of the church’s ministries, Rev. Jennifer King Daugherty said.
Storms considered the project an extension of efforts to reduce police violence through policy work at the state legislature, which resulted in the passage of 14 bills — such as legislation that bans law enforcement from using chokeholds — during the 2021 legislative session.
“These were really needless deaths,” Storms said. “These were lives that mattered and they left behind mothers, fathers, children, sisters and partners who, like the whole that is cut from them, will never be refilled. But at least we can have people know what happened.”