San Diego County Sheriff patch
A San Diego County Sheriff’s deputy’s patch. Courtesy of the department

A former San Diego County sheriff’s deputy who fatally shot an unarmed, fleeing detainee outside the downtown San Diego jail pleaded guilty Friday to a voluntary manslaughter charge.

Aaron Russell, 25, faces up to 11 years in prison for the May 1, 2020, death of Nicholas Bils, who was shot multiple times as he was running away from police, leading to the rare decision to prosecute a law enforcement officer in a police shooting.

Russell, who had been with the department for 18 months, resigned shortly after the shooting and was later charged with second-degree murder. He’s set to be sentenced on Feb. 7.

Bils, 36, was being taken to the downtown detention facility when he managed to partially slip out of handcuffs and escape from a California State Parks officer’s car.

According to witness testimony and surveillance footage, another ranger in a separate vehicle tried to get out of his truck to subdue Bils, but he shoved the truck’s door into the officer’s legs and took off running before he was shot four times in the back, arm, and thigh.

Three other law enforcement officers were at the scene, but Russell was the only one to draw his firearm, according to prosecutors.

Criminal charges against Russell came as a result of a change to state law, which now holds that officers can utilize deadly force only when they believe it’s necessary to defend against the imminent threat of death or serious harm to themselves or others.

At Russell’s preliminary hearing, one of his attorneys, Richard Pinckard, argued his client had a reasonable belief that Bils presented a threat to members of the public.

Though Bils wasn’t carrying any weapons, Pinckard noted he had managed to slip the cuffs off one of his wrists and may have been clutching the dangling cuff in his hand as he ran from the scene.

Pinckard said that while Bils ran, he briefly turned toward Russell with the metal object in his hand, and “Mr. Russell perceived an imminent threat.”

Other officers present at the scene of the shooting testified they didn’t feel Bils presented an immediate danger to them or the general public.

As part of his plea agreement, Russell admitted he “unreasonably believed that I or someone else was in imminent danger of being killed or suffering great bodily injury. I actually, but unreasonably believed that the immediate use of deadly force was necessary to defend against the danger. I, therefore, acting alone, personally used my department-issued firearm to shoot Nicholas Bils, ending his life.”

In a statement, San Diego County District Attorney Summer Stephan said, “After an extensive analysis of all the evidence, including that presented by the defense after the preliminary hearing, the defendant’s guilty plea to felony voluntary manslaughter accurately reflects that this is a homicide in which the victim was unlawfully killed and that the former deputy sheriff erroneously and unreasonably believed it was necessary to defend against a perceived imminent threat.”

Stephen said the DA’s Office also consulted Bils’ mother regarding the guilty plea. Kathleen Bils filed a federal wrongful death lawsuit against Russell, San Diego County Sheriff Bill Gore, the county, and others in connection with the shooting. The lawsuit remains pending.

Stephan said, “Her input was a critical component in determining the appropriate resolution as she has suffered an unspeakable loss because of the defendant’s actions. Nothing will bring back this family’s loved one, but we hope this conviction will bring them a measure of justice and accountability.”

–City News Service