SAN DIEGO—A former sheriff’s deputy who fatally shot an unarmed, fleeing detainee outside the downtown San Diego jail was sentenced on Feb. 7 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’s mother, Kathleen Bils, left the courtroom almost immediately after San Diego Superior Court Judge Francis Devaney imposed the sentence.
Outside court, Bils’s 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.”
Prosecutors sought a six-year prison term and argued Russell was ineligible for probation, but Devaney said the law allowed him to consider probation if he found that it was “an unusual case where the interests of justice would best be served” by granting probation.
The judge, who said he did not believe Russell would re-offend, cited the defendant’s age—he was 23 at the time of the shooting—his relative inexperience as a deputy, and his lack of a prior criminal record, as factors that led to a probation sentence.
Prior to sentencing, Russell apologized to the Bils’s family, and told them, “I think about the ‘what ifs’ of the situation every day.”
Kathleen Bils said it was apparent from a young age that her son suffered from mental illness, and that he was prone to running from unexpected and frustrating encounters with people.
She said he was not violent or aggressive, and displayed a gentle nature with animals and his family. Though she said she felt an obligation to forgive Russell, she said, “I’m just not ready.”
Bils’s brother, Timothy Bils, called the shooting “senseless and completely unnecessary” and urged the judge to impose prison.
“If people don’t know they will be held accountable for their actions, then society has nothing to prevent them from breaking the law as Mr. Russell did,” Timothy Bils said.
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.
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.