Judge: Release photos of tattoos on cop charged with murder

A judge has ordered the release of 78 photographs of tattoos that cover the body of a suburban Seattle police officer charged with murder, but said prosecutors must redact about half after finding them "inflammatory" and saying their release could jeopardize the officer’s right to a fair trial.

King County Superior Court Judge Nicole Gaines Phelps on Wednesday said the release of 38 photographs of Auburn Police Department Officer Jeff Nelson’s extensive body art does not endanger his defense or violate his right to privacy, The Seattle Times reported.

The rest — taken by prosecutors as they build their case against Nelson in the 2019 on-duty shooting death of Jesse Sarey — must be redacted and cannot be seen in their entirety by the public.

The redactions include "visible wording" inked on his stomach, chest, neck and legs, according to an exhibit filed by the judge after the hearing.

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(FBI Seattle Field Office)

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The Seattle Times had filed a public disclosure request seeking all photos, and its attorneys tried to persuade the judge that their release was in the public interest, given that Nelson is the first police officer in King County in decades to be charged with homicide for the use of deadly force while on duty.

"The court is redacting the information … because the court finds that the photographs 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," the judge said.

That would make it difficult for the court, she added, to "be able to effectively and efficiently select jurors that don’t have those biases or have been affected by pretrial publicity."

The judge also said it was likely that portions of a pretrial hearing where attorneys will argue the admissibility of the photographs in Nelson’s trial could be closed to the public — a rare move in criminal proceedings.

Seattle Times Executive Editor Michele Matassa Flores said the newspaper is considering an appeal of the judge’s ruling.

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The judge allowed King County prosecutors to photograph Nelson’s tattoos after they argued that the body art was relevant and potentially key evidence in his upcoming murder trial. Nelson’s attorneys have argued that the tattoos have "no bearing whatsoever" on Nelson’s decision to shoot and kill 26-year-old Sarey outside an Auburn market on May 31, 2019.

Nelson, who joined the Auburn Police Department in 2008, shot Sarey while trying to arrest him on suspicion of disorderly conduct in an interaction that lasted just 67 seconds.

Nelson has pleaded not guilty to second-degree murder and assault.

The case was the first filed against an officer since voters in Washington passed legislation in 2019, which was amended by the Legislature, that makes it easier to prosecute police for using deadly force.