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San Diego County D.A. files murder charge against officer who shot fleeing suspect

Aaron Russell, 23, is charged in the May 1 death of Nicholas Bils, 36. Russell is scheduled to be arraigned Tuesday morning in downtown San Diego.

A San Diego County sheriff’s deputy who shot an unarmed detainee in May as the man ran from authorities outside the downtown city jail has been charged with second-degree murder, the district attorney’s office said Monday.

Aaron Russell, 23, is charged in the May 1 death of Nicholas Bils, 36. Russell, who resigned from the Sheriff’s Department in the days after the shooting, is scheduled to be arraigned Tuesday morning in San Diego County Superior Court.

Second-degree murder carries a potential sentence of 15 years to life in prison.

Russell was arrested Monday and jailed. His bail was set at $1 million. He had been with the department about 18 months at the time of the shooting.

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San Diego County Dist. Atty. Summer Stephan said in a statement that the decision to charge followed a “thorough review of all the objective facts and evidence” in the case by specialized prosecutors and investigators.

“When a life is taken, we must make decisions based in facts and law, and not ones that are influenced by the status of the accused as a peace officer nor the status of the victim,” Stephan said. “These decisions must be made solely in the interest of justice and not based on favoritism nor public opinion. Every person must be accountable under the law.”

The Sheriff’s Department referred comment on the case to the district attorney’s office.

Bils’ mother, Kathleen Bils, and her attorney did not immediately respond to messages seeking comment.

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The incident was captured on video surveillance. But prosecutors said they are not releasing it because it “is now evidence in a pending criminal case and releasing it publicly could jeopardize the defendant’s right to a fair trial.”

The video will probably be entered into evidence if the case goes to trial.

Under a state law implemented last year, video footage of police shootings should typically be released within 45 days, but agencies can withhold video in certain instances, including if it’s part of a criminal investigation.

According to San Diego police, Bils escaped from a California State Parks ranger’s car May 1 just outside a vehicle gate to the San Diego Central Jail.

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Bils apparently made his escape by slipping at least one wrist from his handcuffs, then reaching out the open window of the car to open the door from the outside, San Diego Police Homicide Lt. Matt Dobbs said at the time.

Russell and another deputy were on their way into work at the jail when they saw the escape and chased Bils, who was running toward vehicles stopped in traffic, said Dobbs and Homicide Capt. Richard Freedman.

That’s when Russell opened fire, shooting Bils at least once, Dobbs said.

Figueroa and Riggins write for the San Diego Union-Tribune.

Updates:

5:42 PM, Jul. 13, 2020: This story was updated with additional details and background.

6:12 PM, Jul. 13, 2020: This story was updated with information from attorney Richard Pinckard.


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