Attorney for Auburn Police Officer Charged With Murder Files Motion to Change Judge

by Jack Russillo

The attorney for Jeff Nelson, an Auburn police officer charged with second-degree murder and first-degree assault for the killing of Jesse Sarey in Auburn in May 2019, filed a motion to change judges in the case.

King County Superior Court Judge Veronica Galván currently presides over the case, which is the first that involves a police officer who has been charged with murder since Initiative 940 (I-940) was enacted in 2018. I-940 changed the legal standard for criminally prosecuting police officers in instances of deadly force. The new legal standard focuses on whether the officer acted reasonably or in “good faith.” In other words, a jury must decide whether an objective, similarly-situated, and reasonable officer would believe that the use of deadly force was necessary to prevent death or serious injury to the officer or another individual. 

King County Deputy Attorneys Mark Larson and Kathleen Van Olst and three other investigative experts determined that Nelson’s “actions fail to meet this ‘good faith’ standard required by Washington State law” and that “there is probable cause to support the charges being brought against Jeffrey Nelson.” 

“I can’t believe that [the defense] would think that [Nelson] could not commit a crime or that he is not a risk,” said Elaine Simons, Sarey’s foster mother. “He killed three people — why are you not saying that he’s a threat to society? He killed three people.”

After reviewing facts of the case, King County Superior Court Judge Catherine Shaffer, on August 20, summoned Nelson into court to answer to his alleged charges. The order for summons was made instead of a warrant for Nelson’s arrest, but it also stipulated that he surrender his firearms and concealed gun license. 

Four days later, at Nelson’s arraignment at the Maleng Regional Justice Center (MRJC) in Kent on August 24, Galván set Nelson’s bail at $500,000. Nelson posted bail the same day and has been on house arrest since then. His next scheduled hearing is September 22 at the MRJC. 

Alan Harvey, Nelson’s attorney, declared multiple arguments for a “change of judge for actual prejudice and/or disqualification.” According to Harvey, at Nelson’s arraignment, Galván was “provided with no new facts to support an imposition of bail” by Larson. Harvey contended that “Judge Galván was provided only facts that would support release upon personal recognizance.” 

Harvey asserted that Larson provided no additional evidence at the arraignment that Nelson should be considered a flight risk, that he’s a risk to commit a violent offense, or that he will tamper with witnesses or evidence related to the case. If facts were presented or Nelson was determined to be “a threat to the administration of justice” in any way, that would have been enough evidence to support a request for bail. 

“There is no evidence to support a request for bail under this rule, provided that Officer Nelson is not working in law enforcement as an officer,” court documents signed by Larson say. 

Harvey’s motion to change judges also took issue with Galván’s statement at the arraignment involving “intentional murder,” asserting that the phrase “is not supported by the filing of a murder in the second degree as currently charged.” Second-degree murder is defined in Washington State as “intent to cause the death of another person but without premeditation.” 

“The fact of the matter is that [Nelson] has been charged with intentional murder,” Galván said at the arraignment. “We cannot escape that no matter what his profession is. The idea that merely wearing a uniform means that he cannot be violent in any other circumstance is not an argument that sits well with this court. The court finds that due to the nature of the charge, that he represents a flight risk. He is no longer under investigation, he is now charged with murder. There is a big difference there. The state finds that he is of substantial likelihood of committing a violent offense because of the nature of the allegations here are such cause for concern.”

In other recent cases concerning second-degree murder around King County, Ronald Mitchell and Michael Lee Banks, among others, were held in lieu of $2 million bail for their second-degree murder charges. 

Elsewhere in the country, Derek Chauvin, the former Minneapolis police officer who killed George Floyd in May, is being held at $1.25 million bail. In 2019 in Florida, former Palm Beach Gardens police officer Nouman Raja’s bail was initially set at $250,000 before he was convicted of murdering Corey Jones and sentenced to 25 years in prison. He was the first on-duty officer to be convicted of murder in Florida in 30 years.

“I just want to stay focused on justice for Jesse,” said Simons. “As long as we can all remember that’s what this is about — that this is a murder trial. This is about something that’s going to set precedent for other impacted families. That’s what this is about: getting justice.”

Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this article stated that Jeff Nelson had not posted bail following his arraignment. The article was updated on 9/15/20, the same day as its original publication, to correct the error.

Jack Russillo has been reporting in Western Washington since 2013. He covers the environment, social justice, and other topics that affect a sustainable and equitable future. He currently lives in Seattle’s Beacon Hill neighborhood.

Featured Image: King County Superior Court Judge Veronica Galván at Jeff Nelson’s arraignment on August 24. (Photo by Jack Russillo)