EUTAWVILLE, S.C. – As communities around the nation protest decisions not to charge officers who have injured or killed suspects, South Carolina prosecutors have obtained indictments against three white officers for on-duty shootings of unarmed black men in the past four months.
It might seem unusual that officers would face charges in a law-and-order state like South Carolina. But a former prosecutor with some high-profile cases under his belt said officials are acutely aware that people think there is a good ol' boy network in the state and are extra careful to give cases involving police officers the highest level of scrutiny.
"As prosecutors, you are well aware of that stereotype and so you go that extra mile to make sure justice is done," said state Rep. Tommy Pope, who served 13 years as a chief prosecutor and perhaps is best known for his prosecution of Susan Smith, who was convicted of drowning her two sons in a lake.
It took nearly four years for a grand jury to hand down a murder indictment in the latest South Carolina shooting. A white former police chief and at the time the only officer in the small town of Eutawville was charged Wednesday in the 2011 shooting death of an unarmed black man after an argument, a case that instantly drew comparisons to the Ferguson, Missouri, shooting and the chokehold death in New York.
Combs' lawyer accused prosecutors of taking advantage of national outrage toward police and the justice system to get the indictment.
"He's trying to make it racial because his timing is perfect," attorney John O'Leary said. "He's got all the national issues going on, so they want to drag him (Combs) in and say, look what a great community we are here, because we're going to put a police officer who was doing his job in jail for 30 years. That's wrong. That's completely wrong."
Prosecutor David Pascoe said he had always planned to seek a murder charge if a judge threw out the former chief's "stand your ground" self-defense claim, which happened last month.
The family of Bernard Bailey welcomed the indictment. They already settled a civil lawsuit against Eutawville for $400,000. Their attorney said the recent indictments in the state may show a greater concern for justice in South Carolina, a state with a painful history of injustice toward blacks, than elsewhere in the U.S.
"We don't know what brand of justice they serve in Ferguson. We don't know what brand of justice they're serving in New York City. But here in South Carolina, we believe in the jury system, and we believe in what the grand jury has brought as a charge with this indictment," attorney Carl B. Grant said.
Combs, 38, had previously been charged with misconduct in office for the shooting. He had faced up to 10 years.
In August, a North Augusta officer was charged with misconduct in office in the shooting death of a 68-year-old unarmed black man at his home after a chase. A state trooper was charged with assault and battery of a high and aggravated nature in September when he shot a driver he had pulled over as the man reached in his car to get his wallet. That shooting was captured on the trooper's dashboard camera and shown around the world. Both officers are awaiting trials.
Pope isn't involved in any of the cases. But he knows Pascoe and other prosecutors across the state and said he knows they don't want to appear to be giving anyone preferential treatment.
"Law enforcement, due to the nature of their jobs, are given wide berth," said Pope, who was just voted Speaker Pro Tem of the state House. "But you're sworn to certain things, and when you go outside those requirements, you can't hide behind your badge and gun."
Bailey was shot in May 2011 during an argument over a traffic ticket issued to Bailey's daughter. Combs had gotten an arrest warrant for Bailey after a previous argument over the same issue and followed the 6-foot-6 former prison guard to his truck. The two briefly fought when Combs tried to get inside to turn the ignition, and Combs then shot Bailey, saying he was tangled in the steering wheel and feared for his life if Bailey drove away.
A judge ruled last month that he should have let Bailey leave.
The Justice Department cleared Combs, and state investigators began reviewing the shooting in March 2013.
Bailey's family cautioned against comparing Bailey's killing in this town of 300 residents — one-third of them black — with Ferguson and New York because it's a place where everyone knows everyone.
Combs' case hadn't generated protests like those incited by the decisions in Ferguson and New York. But that could change if the former chief is acquitted at trial next year, said Detrick Jenkins Sr., a neighbor of Bailey's who worked with him at a state prison.
"People probably won't like it and will have a more aggressive attitude," said Jenkins, who is black.