Published November 30, 2015
A white police chief who fatally shot an unarmed black man in South Carolina in 2011 was charged with murder, and his lawyer accused prosecutors of taking advantage of national outrage toward police to get the indictment.
Richard Combs, the former police chief and sole officer in the small town of Eutawville, was indicted Wednesday, the same day a grand jury in New York decided against charging an officer in a chokehold death, and less than two weeks after there was no indictment in the fatal police shooting in Ferguson, Missouri.
Those cases also involved white officers and unarmed black men and the decision not to charge the officers set off protests around the country.
The indictment in the South Carolina case was released Thursday.
The former police chief's lawyer questioned why prosecutors waited almost four years to ask for the murder charge. Combs had previously been indicted with misconduct in office.
"He's trying to make it racial," Combs' attorney John O'Leary said of Solicitor David Pascoe. "He's got all the national issues going on."
Pascoe said he told Combs' lawyers a year ago that he would pursue a murder charge if a judge rejected Combs' claim of self-defense. A judge ruled against the defense's "stand your ground" motion earlier this week.
Combs worked in Eutawville -- population 300 and one-third black -- when Bernard Bailey came to Town Hall to argue about his daughter's broken-taillight ticket in May 2011. Combs tried to arrest Bailey on an obstruction of justice charge, prosecutors said. Bailey marched back outside to his truck, and Combs tried to get inside, he said to turn off the ignition. The two briefly fought, and Combs shot Bailey, 54, twice in the chest in his pickup.
Combs said at an earlier hearing that he was tangled in Bailey's steering wheel as he tried to shut the engine off and feared for his life if Bailey drove away.
Prosecutors said Combs was the aggressor, following Bailey as he tried to get away. They said he should have called for more officers to help or let Bailey go and arrest him another day instead of escalating the confrontation.
State investigators began reviewing the shooting in March 2013 after a U.S. Justice Department investigation determined Combs did not violate Bailey's civil rights. In August 2013, state prosecutors charged Combs with misconduct in office, which carries a maximum of 10 years in prison.
Combs trial on the lesser charge had been set to start next week, and after the indictment, Pascoe wanted to move forward with a murder trial then. But the judge delayed it until at least January.
Combs' bail was set at $150,000. O'Leary said he likely won't be able to pay it because he doesn't have a job. Combs was placed on leave after the shooting, and the town let him go six months later.
In August, Bailey's family reached a $400,000 wrongful death settlement with Eutawville, which is 50 miles southeast of Columbia.
His family said they are pleased with the murder indictment. But they don't think this case should be compared to what happened in Missouri and New York because Eutawville is a small town where everybody knows everyone.
"That is comparing oranges and apples," said Bailey's widow, Doris Bailey.
Combs is the third officer in South Carolina to be charged this year for an on-duty shooting. A white police officer in North Augusta was charged with misconduct in office in August 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 an unarmed black man 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.