Former San Diego deputy who fatally shot fleeing man gets probation, 1 year in jail

Former sheriff’s deputy Aaron Russell is taken into custody
Former Sheriff’s Deputy Aaron Russell is taken into custody after his sentencing hearing Monday at the Central Courthouse in downtown San Diego.
(Kristian Carreon / For the San Diego Union-Tribune)

A former San Diego County sheriff’s deputy who shot and killed a man who was running from authorities outside the downtown jail nearly two years ago was sentenced Monday to three years of probation and one year in jail.

Aaron Russell, 25, pleaded guilty last month to voluntary manslaughter in the fatal shooting of Nicholas Bils, 36.

On May 1, 2020, Bils slipped out of the backseat of a park ranger’s car when it stopped in front of the downtown jail. He ran north on Front Street at B Street.


Russell, who had been on his way to work at the jail, saw Bils running and fired five shots. Bils was struck at least four times, including a bullet that entered the left side of his back. Russell resigned within days of the fatal shooting.

San Diego County Superior Court Judge Francis Devaney issued the sentence during a hearing that lasted most of the morning. Under state law, the judge had the option of placing Russell on probation, with or without time in local custody, or sentencing him to prison.

The prosecutor, Deputy Dist. Atty. Stephen Marquardt, had sought a six-year term behind bars.

When choosing probation, the judge ordered a three-year suspended sentence, meaning that if Russell were to violate the terms of probation, he could be sent to prison.

The former deputy initially had been charged with murder, making him the first law enforcement officer in California to be charged as such since the state raised the standard two years ago for when peace officers can use deadly force.

Such force is permissible only when “necessary,” when a life is in imminent danger and nonlethal methods are not available, the law states. Previously, deadly force had been allowable when “reasonable.”

According to the San Diego County district attorney’s office, Russell admitted in the plea agreement he entered Jan. 7 that he “unreasonably believed that I or someone else was in imminent danger of being killed or suffering great bodily injury” when he saw Bils running from the jail.

“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,” Russell admitted in the agreement.

Bils’ mother, Kathleen Bils, has sued Russell and the county in federal court, alleging excessive force and wrongful death.