By Sandra G. Leon
A now-former San Diego County Sheriff’s Deputy pled guilty to a manslaughter charge for shooting an unarmed suspect who was attempting to escape before being booked into the downtown jail, and avoided the possibility of spending the rest of his life in prison.
Aaron Russell, now 25, pled guilty this week to a felony charge of voluntary manslaughter in the death of Nicholas Bils, 36, who had escaped from a patrol car on May 1, 2020, while being booking into jail. Bils was mentally ill and had a life-long fear of police.
Bils had been detained by park rangers for allegedly swinging a golf club at them after being told the park was closed. He freed his left hand from the hand cuffs, escaped from the ranger’s patrol car, and was running down a street near the downtown jail.
Russell, who was in uniform but off-duty, saw the chase and fired five shots at Bils, hitting him four times. Bils died from his injuries. Russell was fired from the Sheriff’s Department after he was charged with Bils’ death.
Another Sheriff’s Deputy who witnessed the shooting said he too planned to give chase but that he did not believe the situation posed an imminent threat to the public and that he did not believe deadly force was necessary.
San Diego District Attorney Summer Stephan’s office initially charged Russell with second degree murder in July 2020, but the plea agreement his week between her office and Russell allowed him to plead guilty to the lesser charge and avoid a trial.
Russell faced a minimum sentence of 15 years to to the possibility of life in prison, but now only faces a possible sentence of up to 11 years in prison when he is sentenced on February 7th.
In his plea agreement, Russell admitted that 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.”
Russell was the first police officer to be charged under a new California law that took effect on January 1, 2020, that changed the standard for police use of deadly force from when it is “reasonable” to only when it is “necessary” to prevent imminent danger to life.
That law change was authored by Dr. Shirley Weber when she was in the California State Assembly. Weber is now the state’s Secretary of State and her daughter, Dr. Akilah Weber, was elected to replace her in the Assembly. Dr. Akilah Weber currently represents the 79th Assembly District.