(CN) — A former San Diego County sheriff's officer pleaded guilty Friday to one count of voluntary manslaughter in the 2020 shooting of fleeing suspect.
In 2020, Aaron Russell, now 25, shot 36-year-old Nicholas Bils in the back, killing him, after Bils escaped from the back of a State Parks patrol car.
"The defendant’s guilty plea to felony voluntary manslaughter 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," said District Attorney Summer Stephan in a statement. Stephan said he had spoken with Bils's mother, Kathleen, about the plea deal: "Her input was a critical component in determining the appropriate resolution."
According to a wrongful death lawsuit filed by Kathleen, Nicholas suffered from schizophrenia. He was hitting golf balls for his dog to chase, at a state park in May 2020 when he was approached by park rangers for violating Covid restrictions and for having a dog off-leash. Bils initially ran from the police, who gave chase. One of the rangers later said that Bils made a motion to swing the golf club at the officers — a point disputed in Kathleen's lawsuit. Bils was eventually arrested, and placed into the back of a patrol car.
Bils somehow managed to slip his left hand out of the handcuffs and escape the vehicle. A nearby park ranger tried to stop Bils, but Bils pushed the car door into the officer and took off running, handcuff still dangling from his right wrist.
Russell, an on-duty sheriff's officer, observed the escape from a nearby intersection. He pulled out his gun and fired five shots. Four struck Bils, including one which pierced his left lung and heart. He was rushed to the hospital where he was pronounced dead.
At a preliminary hearing, another sheriff's officer who witnessed the shooting testified, according to a statement by the San Diego District Attorney's office, that "he saw no need for any type of other force and did not feel anyone in the area was in immediate danger."
Prosecutors charged Russell with second-degree murder in July 2020 — the first law enforcement official to be charged under California's new, stricter use-of-deadly-force standard set by California Assembly Bill 392. The law, which went into effect in January 2020, changed the standard from when it is "reasonable" to when it is "necessary."
In his plea deal, Russell acknowledged 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."
Russell faces up to 11 years in state prison when he is sentenced Feb. 7.