Ex-Eutawville police chief Richard Combs pleaded guilty to misconduct in office Tuesday in connection with his 2011 fatal shooting of an unarmed African-American man.
Circuit Judge Edgar Dickson sentenced Combs to a suspended sentence of 10 years, meaning he will serve no time on the misdemeanor charge that was a far cry from his earlier charges of murder and voluntary manslaughter.
Combs shot and killed Bernard Bailey, 54, outside city hall on the morning on May 2, 2011. Bailey had gone to city hall to talk to court officials about delaying a trial for a traffic ticket his daughter had received.
The unexpected plea and sentence put an end to a four-year legal saga that included state and federal investigations, a civil lawsuit in which the town of Eutawville paid Bailey’s heirs $400,000 and – finally this year – two criminal trials this year that ended in hung juries.
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Combs’ two mistrials attracted wide attention during a year that has seen unprecedented publicity for police officers’ use of lethal force, especially cases involving white officers and African-American suspects.
Combs’ shooting of Bailey was not as clear-cut as some other cases. It was not caught on videotape, and witnesses said the 6-foot, 6-inch Bailey, although unarmed, was resisting arrest in a manner that allowed Combs to claim he had to use his gun.
The first trial was in Orangeburg in January; the second in June in Richland County. In each trial, Combs faced murder charges that would have carried 30 years to life in prison. In each trial, from two to four jurors hung the jury. Jurors also considered whether to convict Combs of manslaughter, which carries a lesser charge than murder.
First Circuit Solicitor David Pascoe said Tuesday that if Combs had not pleaded guilty Tuesday, he would have scheduled a third trial for Combs in October.
Pascoe’s determination to get a final jury verdict after two mistrials was in marked contrast to North Carolina prosecutors’ recent handling of a mistrial declared last month in the fatal shooting of an unarmed African-American college football player in Charlotte by a white Charlotte-Mecklenburg officer. In that case, after an 8-4 hung jury, the prosecutors announced Friday they would not seek another trial.
Overt racial themes did not play a role in Combs’ shooting of Bailey. Rather, questions revolved around whether the former police chief had used poor judgment and was seeking some kind of revenge against Bailey because, before the shooting, Bailey came to the scene of a traffic stop where Combs had pulled Bailey’s daughter over for a broken tail light. And some jurors were said to say that because Bailey was resisting arrest, he escalated the confrontation.
During the traffic stop, Bailey and Combs argued but were far from coming to blows, and prosecutors contended that Bailey was doing what all fathers would do if they could – be present during a traffic stop involving their daughter. Other police on the scene testified that Bailey’s conduct did not amount to interference with an officer.
After the traffic stop, without telling Bailey, Combs went to a magistrate and swore out a warrant for obstruction of justice, a charge that carries up to 10 years in prison.
Later, when Bailey went to Town Hall to request a change in the court hearing date on the broken taillight charge because his daughter was away at college, the chief sprung the warrant on him. Bailey, whom witnesses said was stunned, walked out of town hall and went to his truck.
Once Bailey was in his truck and was starting to back up, Combs opened the door and tried to turn off the ignition. The two briefly fought, and Combs shot Bailey twice in the chest, prosecutors said.
During both trials, Combs testified he was tangled in Bailey’s steering wheel and feared for his life if Bailey drove away.
The Justice Department investigated the shooting and found no cause to bring charges.
In 2014, the town of Eutawville settled a wrongful death lawsuit brought by Bailey’s family, paying the family $400,000.
At the time of his death, Bailey was an assistant manager in a Summerville Wal-Mart. He had been a longtime prison guard for the S.C. Department of Corrections.
Combs, a former Marine, was placed on leave after the shooting. The town dismissed him six months later. He had been free on $150,000 bond.
Each of the two trials earlier this year were marked by hard-fought battles between defense and prosecution lawyers.
In a closing argument to Richland County jurors, Pascoe portrayed Combs as a rogue cop who “decided to be judge, jury and executioner...You can’t take a human life without clean hands.”
But defense attorney Wally Fayssoux told the jury that Pascoe’s expert witnesses who testified about the shooting had manipulated facts so Pascoe could win his case.
“We don’t have results-oriented justice in South Carolina!" cried Fayssoux, who described Pascoe’s prosecution team as believing that "winning is more important than the truth."
In addition to the issues of police conduct raised by deadly confrontations between white officers and African-American men, the last year has seen other high-profile racial violence incidents with police and others being the targets.
In Texas last month, a white deputy filling his tank at a gas station was shot to death by an African-American man. Accused hate crimes killer Dylann Roof of Columbia in June killed nine African-Americans at a prayer meeting in a Charleston church. Writings attributed to Roof said he wanted to start a race war.
And not all questionable use of force incidents involve race. An investigation is onging in the police shooting in Senaca of an unarmed white youth by a white police officer.