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Former San Diego sheriff’s deputy faces federal charges in killing of unarmed man

A former San Diego Sheriff's Deputy, Aaron Russell, who has already pleaded guilty to voluntary
In this image from May 2020 surveillance video shown in court, former San Diego County Sheriff’s Deputy Aaron Russell, center, can be seen pointing his gun at Nicholas Bils outside San Diego County Jail.
(San Diego Court Jail / Associated Press)
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A former San Diego sheriff’s deputy who has already pleaded guilty to voluntary manslaughter for the 2020 fatal shooting of an unarmed suspect has been indicted on two federal charges that could put him in prison for life.

A statement posted on the U.S. Department of Justice website said a federal grand jury in San Diego returned a two-count indictment Friday charging Aaron Russell with depriving Nicholas Bils of his right to be free from officers using excessive force and with discharging a firearm in relation to a crime of violence.

A judge on Friday set Russell’s bond at $50,000 with restrictions including limiting his travel and prohibiting him from possessing firearms, the City News Service reported.

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Bils, 36, was arrested on May 1, 2020, on suspicion of brandishing a golf club at park rangers in Old Town State Park and was being taken to the downtown jail. He managed to escape from a California State Parks officer’s car and fled down Front Street outside the jail.

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.

None of the other officers at the scene fired a shot or drew their weapons, the Justice Department statement said.

Russell resigned within days of the fatal shooting.

The charges carry a potential penalty of life in prison based on a federal judge’s application of U.S. sentencing guidelines and other statutory factors, the statement said.

The former deputy initially had been charged by the San Diego County district attorney’s office 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, the San Diego Union-Tribune reported.

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.”

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According to the district attorney’s office, Russell admitted in the plea agreement he entered Jan. 7, 2022, 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, the Union-Tribune said.

Russell, who was 23 at the time of the shooting and had been a deputy for 18 months, pleaded guilty to voluntary manslaughter. He was sentenced to a year in jail and three years probation.

Bils’ mother, Kathleen Bils, told NBC 7 her son was a paranoid schizophrenic who was afraid of law enforcement, which may have played a role in his flight.

The shooting led to a wrongful death lawsuit filed by Bils’ family, which settled in mid-2022, with San Diego County agreeing to pay the Bils family $8.1 million.

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