A former San Diego County sheriff's deputy who fatally shot an unarmed, fleeing detainee outside the downtown San Diego jail was sentenced to a year behind bars and probation.
Aaron Russell, 25, was in court Monday for his sentencing for killing Nicholas Blis, who was shot multiple times in the back while running away from police on May 1, 2020. The defendant was originally sentenced to three years in prison for the shooting but since that sentence was stayed, Russell instead will spend a year in jail and may do work furlough.
Shooting of Nicholas Blis
Russell, who had been with the department for 18 months, resigned shortly after the shooting and was later charged with second-degree murder. He pleaded guilty last month to a voluntary manslaughter charge.
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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.
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."
During court proceedings, Bils' mother, Kathleen Bils, asked the judge to give Russel prison time for killing her son.
"This sweet, gentle soul was my son, and I loved him. I loved him with every fiber of my being," Kathleen Bils said. "You shot him, not just once, but five times you pulled that trigger, You were his judge, you were his jury, and you were his executioner. And Why? For the crime of escaping from a park ranger's car and running. Is that worth the death penalty?"
Kathleen filed a federal wrongful death lawsuit against the defendant, San Diego County Sheriff Bill Gore, the county and others in connection with the shooting. The lawsuit remains pending.