A San Diego County judge ruled a former county sheriff’s deputy to require to stand trial on a murder charge where he allegedly shot a man to death after he saw him escape from a state parks patrol car parked near the downtown jail.
The suspect, 24-year-old Aaron Russell, pleaded not guilty in the alleged shooting murder of the victim, 36-year-old Nicholas Bils, who was seen running away on May 1, 2020. Authorities were able to watch video footage of the incident from a surveillance camera on Smart Streetlights.
Murder of Fleeing Man
After more than two days of deliberation, Superior Court Judge Theodore Weathers ruled to have Russell in a face trial. The suspect is the first California law enforcement officer to be charged with murder after state officials revised the law on the use of deadly force.
Rick Pinckard, Russell’s defense attorney, said on Wednesday that his client’s use of force during the encounter was just. He argued that the suspect saw the fleeing man as an imminent threat as he was trying to escape law enforcement officers.
“Is it reasonable for a deputy in that same situation to see the imminent threat of a possible carjacking, robbery, kidnapping, whatever, a violent act by a violent desperate escaping individual, is that reasonable? The defense would submit that yes, it is,” Pickard argued.
Despite Pickard requesting the judge to dismiss the charge or reduce it to voluntary manslaughter, Weathers declined the proposal. “The defendant has raised several theories of justification for the use of the force, but the court believes that these issues will have to be considered by the jury in this case,” said Judge Weathers.
Judge Weathers cited Deputy Darrell Ross’s testimony regarding the incident, who was with Russell before the shooting incident occurred. The judge said the two law enforcement officers had similar training and perspective about Russell’s encounter with Bils.
On Tuesday, Ross testified that while he was walking with Russell, they saw the park ranger’s car approach the jail sally port. Immediately, he saw an arm come out of a gap between the backseat window’s bars. Ross noted he and Russell looked at each other dumbfounded.
Ross’s testimony said Bils got his left hand out of his handcuffs and tried to reach for the car’s handle. The law enforcement personnel said the victim was able to break out of the vehicle just as the car reached the entrance of the jail.
The testimony said that a park ranger tried to stop Bils who quickly slammed the door against the officer and fled while still handcuffed by his wrists. When Ross and Russell saw the man running away, the defendant then fired at Bils five times, hitting him four times.
On Tuesday, Ross said he planned to chase and tackle Bils to the ground to stop his escape and that he could not justify the use of “any type of other force.” He noted that he himself, nor anyone in the vicinity, was in any immediate threat from the man running away, the Los Angeles Times reported.
Judge Weathers also said that none of the park rangers who were transporting Bils or the one that tried to chase after him initially pulled out their firearms. Deputy District Attorney Stephen Marquardt said Russell’s use of his gun was not justified. “The idea that this amount of force was necessary, it’s just not plausible,” he said.
Pinckard said that none of the other rangers or officers saw what his client observed in the split second he witnessed Bils escaping. “For a split second or however long it takes, Deputy Russell sees something from his perspective that nobody else sees. We know that because he begins to draw his gun,” he said.