ORANGEBURG, S.C. (AP) — 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 (YOO’-tah-vihl), 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 decisions not to charge them set off protests around the country.
The indictment in South Carolina was released Thursday. It’s one of three indictments for white officers in the shootings of black men this year in South Carolina, which has a dark and painful past of civil rights unrest and violence.
Combs’ lawyer questioned why prosecutors waited almost four years to ask for the murder charge. Combs, 38, had previously been indicted only with misconduct in office for the shooting.
“He’s trying to make it racial because his timing is perfect,” Combs’ 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 told Combs’ lawyers a year ago that he would pursue a murder charge if a judge rejected a self-defense claim, which happened last month when a judge ruled against a “stand your ground” argument.
“That is in no way a surprise to defense counsel,” Pascoe said.
The shooting happened in May 2011 when Bernard Bailey came to Town Hall, which shares a building with the police department, to argue about a broken-taillight ticket his daughter had received a few days earlier.
Bailey’s daughter called her father when on the day she received the ticket and Bailey and the chief got into an argument, said Bailey family attorney Carl B. Grant.
Combs took out an obstruction warrant against Bailey and when he showed up at Town Hall, the chief tried to arrest Bailey, a 6-foot-6 former prison guard.
Prosecutors said Bailey marched back to his truck, and Combs tried to get inside to turn off the ignition. The two briefly fought, and Combs shot Bailey, 54, twice in the chest.
Combs said he was tangled in Bailey’s steering wheel and feared for his life if Bailey drove away.
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.
David S. Weinstein, a former federal prosecutor now in private practice in Miami, said it was very unusual for an officer to be indicted after the feds had cleared them.
Pascoe, the prosecutor, wouldn’t talk about the grand jury proceedings.
Combs’ trial on the misconduct charge had been set to start next week, but after the murder indictment, a judge delayed it until at least January.
Combs’ bail was set at $150,000. O’Leary said he’ll likely be released Thursday.
Combs is unemployed. He 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 don’t think this case should be compared with Ferguson and New York because everyone in Eutawville knows everyone.
“That is comparing oranges and apples,” said Bailey’s widow, Doris Bailey.
Eutawville has about 300 residents, one-third of them black. Its main street has a hardware store, a pharmacy and medical supply store and number of empty storefronts.
Combs worked as a deputy for the Orangeburg County Sheriff’s Office for six years before being fired in 2007 for “unsatisfactory performance,” according to documents from the South Carolina Criminal Justice Academy obtained by The Post and Courier of Charleston for a 2011 story.
Combs completed police chief’s training in Eutawville just four days before the fatal shooting, the newspaper reported.
Thomas Bilton, a white Eutawville resident who was friends with Bailey, said the police chief should have let him leave Town Hall that day.
“The whole thing has been kind of crazy,” he said. “It’s taken a long time and I think some of the recent events across the country might have contributed to a final verdict to charge him with murder.”
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