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.