SAN DIEGO (CNS) – A former sheriff’s deputy who fatally shot an unarmed, running detainee outside the downtown San Diego jail was sentenced Monday to three years of probation and one year in jail.
Aaron Russell, 25, pleaded guilty last month to a voluntary manslaughter charge 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 shooting.
Russell, who had been with the department for 18 months, resigned shortly after the shooting and was later charged with second-degree murder.
On Monday, the former deputy also received a three-year suspended prison sentence, which he will serve if he violates the terms of his probation. His one year of custody could be served in county jail, but may be served in a work furlough program, if he is approved.
Bils’ mother, Kathleen Bils, left the courtroom almost immediately after San Diego Superior Court Judge Francis Devaney imposed the sentence.
Outside court, Bils’ cousin, Amber Barnett, called the sentence “shameful” and said it “sends the message to law enforcement officers that they can shoot someone in the back and maybe get a year in jail.”
Bils, 36, was being taken to the downtown detention facility where 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 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.
Bils’ mother, 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.
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