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Ex-San Diego deputy pleads guilty to manslaughter in killing

January 7, 2022 GMT

A former San Diego County sheriff’s deputy who had been facing a murder trial instead pleaded guilty Friday to voluntary manslaughter in the shooting of a man he saw escape from a patrol car, authorities said.

The San Diego County District Attorney’s Office said Aaron Russell, 25, entered the plea under an agreement and faces up to 11 years in prison. Russell originally was charged with second-degree murder and pleaded not guilty.

Russell was a deputy with 18 months on the force when he saw Nicholas Bils, 36, escape from a State Parks patrol car near downtown San Diego in May 2020 and shot him in the back and side as Bills was running away.

Prosecutors said that defense attorneys raised several theories justifying use of force, but in the 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.”

A prosecution press release noted that California law changed in January 2020 to allow use of deadly force only when “necessary,” when a life is in imminent danger and nonlethal means are not available. Previously, deadly force was allowed when “reasonable.”

District Attorney Summer Stephan said in the statement that the voluntary manslaughter plea “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.”

The prosecution account of the shooting stated that Bils was being taken to jail in the State Parks patrol car when he slipped his left hand out of a handcuff and burst out of the vehicle.

A nearby State Parks officer opened the door of his pickup to stop Bils but Bils shoved the door against the officer and ran off, with that officer chasing him.

Russell witnessed the escape while standing at an intersection and fired five shots, hitting Bils four times.

Another deputy who witnessed the scene testified during a preliminary hearing that he planned to chase and tackle Bils and did not see any need for any other type of force or feel anyone in the area was in immediate danger.

Russell resigned shortly after the shooting.