During a hearing on June 8, King County Superior Court Judge Nicole Gaines Phelps decided 40 photos of Auburn police officer Jeffrey Nelson’s tattoos were too inflammatory to release without redactions because they could create bias among potential jurors.
However, Judge Phelps did allow the release of 38 photos of Nelson’s tattoos. Nelson is currently awaiting trial for the murder and assault of Jesse Sarey, who was shot and killed by Nelson in May 2019.
Nelson’s tattoos have already been the subject of scrutiny. Previously released photos of Nelson’s hands show tattoos that read “judged by XII” on one wrist and “carried by VIII” on the other. The phrase “better to be judged by 12 than carried by eight” is a saying popular among police that means one is better off killing someone and being judged by 12 jurors than being killed and being carried by eight pallbearers, according to the prosecution.
Judge Phelps ordered the release of 38 unredacted photos of Nelson’s tattoos on his arms, back and legs, but not his chest or stomach. The released photos show portions of Nelson’s body covered in tattoos of skulls, spiderwebs, a grim reaper, and other dark imagery.
Nelson’s defense attempted to stop the release of all 78 of the photos, arguing it would violate Nelson’s right to privacy and that the photos pose no value to the public’s interest. Judge Phelps said the court was not persuaded by these arguments.
“The public has a legitimate interest in how police departments respond and investigate an allegation involving public servants such as a police officer whose primary and sole purpose to the community is the oath that they took to protect and serve communities who have a vested interest when there is an allegation of a violent crime committed while on duty and the possibility that his or her biases or beliefs could impact his judgment in serving out his duties,” Judge Phelps said.
The court said it carefully examined all 78 of the photos of Nelson’s tattoos and determined 40 needed to be redacted due to their potentially inflammatory nature.
“The court is redacting the information because the court finds that if put into the public domain at this point in the proceedings, the information is more likely than not of a nature that would elicit inflammatory responses, emotional responses, and lead to biases and prejudices that would make it difficult for the trial court to seat unbiased jurors,” Judge Phelps said.
Judge Phelps specifically said that the wording on some of Nelson’s tattoos would likely create bias in potential jurors. Court records indicate that nearly all of the redactions ordered by the court are of wording on Nelson’s body.
One of the tattoos on Nelson’s chest that wasn’t in the 38 photos released by Judge Phelps, but is partly viewable from Nelson’s booking photos, contains the words “one day as a.” In the initial motion to release the photos, the prosecution suggested this tattoo is likely a quote from the fascist Italian dictator Benito Mussolini, who was allied with Adolf Hitler and the Nazi party during World War Two.
“Online searches of that phrase and consultation with law enforcement experts strongly indicate that the slogan is part of the quotation, ‘It is better to live one day as a lion than 100 years as a sheep,’ which is most often attributed to the Italian dictator Benito Mussolini,” the motion says.
The 40 redacted photos are expected to be released sometime later this June, said public records manager Kristie Johnson.
The killing of Jesse Sarey
In May 2019, Nelson shot and killed Jesse Sarey after attempting to arrest Sarey for jaywalking. Over a year later in 2020, King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg filed assault and second-degree murder charges against Nelson for the killing of Sarey.
Nelson is the first officer in Washington to be charged with murder since the passage of Initiative 940, which changed the standard for holding police criminally liable for excessive use of force.
Prior to Initiative 940, prosecutors had to prove a police officer acted with evil intent when they killed someone in the line of duty in order to charge that officer with murder — essentially an impossible standard to meet, Satterberg said.
Under Initiative 940, prosecutors now have to prove that a different, reasonable officer would not have used deadly force in the same situation.
Judged by XII podcast
Click here to check out a special podcast series by Sound Publishing that explores the case of Jeffrey Nelson and his upcoming murder trial.