Auburn police Officer Jeffrey Nelson pleaded not guilty Monday morning to charges of second-degree murder and first-degree assault in the May 2019 fatal shooting of 26-year-old Jesse Sarey.

It was Nelson’s first court appearance since the announcement Thursday that he would face charges in Sarey’s death.

Though King County prosecutors didn’t request bail because they said Nelson is not considered a flight risk or a risk to commit a new crime, Superior Court Judge Veronica Galván imposed $500,000 bail.

“The idea that merely wearing a uniform means that somehow he cannot be violent in any other circumstance is not an argument that sits well with this court,” the judge said.

Nelson was booked into jail at the Maleng Regional Justice Center in Kent at 10:10 a.m., jail records show. Should he post bail, Galván ordered Nelson, who lives in Graham, to be on electronic home detention.

Galván also ordered Nelson to surrender all firearms and was told his guns have already been turned over to Auburn police.

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The case marks only the third time in 40 years that a police officer in Washington has been charged for killing someone in the line of duty, and the first time under new police-accountability legal standards approved by voters in 2018. Nelson has an extensive history of using force and has shot and killed two other people in the line of duty.

Nelson’s attorney, Alan E. Harvey of Northwest Legal Advocates in Vancouver, Washington, said last week that they will likely argue that the shooting was in self-defense and that Nelson’s actions were “reasonable under the circumstances.”

“My client has been a member in good standing of the Auburn Police Department for 11 years,” Harvey told the Associated Press on Thursday.

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Outside the courthouse, family members of several people killed by area police and advocates for police reform called it a win to see Nelson handcuffed and taken to jail.

“There are so many families who’ve not been able to get that little taste of justice,” said Monisha Harrell, the chairperson of Equal Rights Washington and a member of a commission established by Gov. Jay Inslee to propose legislation on police reform.

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“Today is the beginning of a movement and a moment,” she said, noting at least 20 bills are in the works, including establishing special prosecutors to independently investigate officer-involved shootings.

Jesse Sarey was shot and killed by Auburn police officer Jeffrey Nelson on May 31, 2019. (Courtesy of Elaine Simons )
Jesse Sarey was shot and killed by Auburn police officer Jeffrey Nelson on May 31, 2019. (Courtesy of Elaine Simons )

Harrell argued county prosecutors have a “conflict of interest because they rely on law enforcement to make their cases.”

Public defender Amy Parker also addressed the crowd of a couple dozen people. She represents the family of Isaiah Obet, who was fatally shot by Nelson in June 2017.

Since 2011, five people have been killed by Auburn police officers — and Nelson killed three of them, Parker said. He’s also had 65 use-of-force complaints filed against him, she said.

“I’ve been investigating police my entire career and I’ve never seen a use-of-force history like this. Never,” Parker said.

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She also referenced one of Nelson’s tattoos — “Better to be judged by 12 than carried by 8” — as an indication of his “warrior mentality.” (The saying references being judged by a jury instead of being carried by pallbearers).

Parker reviewed police investigations in both the Obet and Sarey killings and said they were written in a way as if to “prove a homicide did not occur.” But charges filed against the people she represents are “written in a way that assumes guilt.”

“As a public defender, it’s been heartbreaking to see the double standard given to Officer Nelson,” she said.

Elaine Simons, Sarey’s foster mother, said seeing Nelson arrested on murder and assault charges sent the message that police officers are not above the law.

Katrina Johnson, whose cousin Charleena Lyles was fatally shot by two Seattle police officers in June 2017, said she expects to see other police officers criminally charged. She referenced the March death of Manny Ellis, who died while being restrained by Tacoma police officers.

“This is the first of many that should be coming down the pike,” said Johnson, who is also a member of the governor’s task force.

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Nelson killed Sarey on May 31, 2019, after Nelson responded to a disorderly conduct call in the 1400 block of Auburn Way North. He encountered Sarey, who had reportedly been throwing items at cars and kicking buildings. The two got into a physical fight as Nelson was trying to arrest Sarey, and Nelson shot him twice.

Prosecutors have said Nelson didn’t follow his training: Among other things, he didn’t wait for backup to arrive, failed to use less-lethal options like a Taser, and did not use any de-escalation techniques, they said.

The charges against Nelson come in the midst of ongoing, near-daily protests against police violence.

At a morning march in Seattle that takes place every weekday, speakers on Monday said charges against Nelson were only the beginning. 

“Charged is one thing, convicted is another. Charged is just lip service,” said organizer Katie N. in an interview. “We need to see that through and we need to see more officers charged.”

Seattle Times staff reporter Heidi Groover contributed to this report.