SAN DIEGO (AP) — A former San Diego County sheriff’s deputy pleaded not guilty Tuesday to fatally shooting an unarmed detainee who fled on foot outside a jail.
Aaron Russell, 23, had been on the force for 18 months and resigned days after the May 1 death of Nicholas Bils.
Russell fired five times as Bils, 36, was running away, striking him in the back, arm and thigh, said Stephen Marquardt, a deputy district attorney.
Eugene Iredale, a lawyer for the Bils family, said the victim was diagnosed with schizophrenia. He was allegedly shooting golf balls at Old Town San Diego State Park when it was closed because of the Coronavirus pandemic.
Bills allegedly brandished a golf club at a ranger but never struck anyone, said Iredale, who plans to sue on behalf of the family.
Bils reached out the window of the sheriff’s vehicle as it approached the downtown jail, opened the door and tired to escape.
Russell’s attorney, Richard Pinckard, said he was disappointed but not surprised by District Attorney Summer Stephan’s decision to file second-degree murder charges Monday. Russell, who faces up to 15 years in prison if convicted, had bail set at $500,000.
It is very rare for a California law enforcement officer to be charged with using deadly force while on duty. But a new state law allows the use of deadly force only when “necessary,” when an officer’s life or the life of others is in imminent danger or when there is no alternative to deescalating the situation
“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 Monday. “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 shooting was captured on video surveillance. But the district attorney’s office said it wasn’t releasing the footage because it could jeopardize the defendant’s right to a fair trial.