A white former police chief in a tiny South Carolina town has been indicted on murder charges in the 2011 shooting of an unarmed black man. The indictment Wednesday came the same day a Staten Island grand jury declined to criminally charge a white New York City police officer in the killing of Eric Garner.
In Orangeburg County, S.C., the grand jury indicted Richard J. Combs, who was the police chief in Eutawville, S.C., when he shot and killed Bernard Bailey, 54, in May 2011. The two men struggled inside Bailey’s car after Bailey came to Town Hall to protest a broken tail light ticket issued to his daughter six weeks earlier.
Combs tried to arrest Bailey on an obstruction of justice warrant for protesting the ticket the day it was issued in March 2011, according to court testimony. The chief then followed Bailey outside Town Hall to his truck. Combs reached into the vehicle as Bailey sat inside.
Combs testified at a court hearing that he became tangled in the truck’s steering wheel as he tried to shut off the ignition. The truck backed up, throwing Combs to the ground, prosecutors said. Combs, saying he feared for his life, shot Bailey twice in the chest.
Prosecutors said the chief instigated the confrontation by following Bailey to his truck. They said Bailey never threatened or attacked the officer. Combs faces up to 30 years to life in prison if convicted on the murder charge.
The grand jury indictment said Combs shot Bailey "with malice aforethought.'' Bail was set at $150,000.
On Nov. 25, a circuit court judge in Orangeburg denied a motion by Combs' lawyer for a defense based on South Carolina's "stand your ground'' law. The judge ruled that Bailey posed no threat to the public and Combs had other ways to serve the warrant rather than by confronting Bailey.
Bailey's brother, the Rev. Kenneth Bailey, told a bond hearing for Combs in August 2013 that the shooting had racist overtones.
"He (Combs) was probably upset because a black man decided to leave him and he was a law enforcement officer,'' the Rev. Bailey said, the Times and Democrat newspaper reported.
John O'Leary, a lawyer for Combs, told the hearing that the shooting had nothing to do with race.
The South Carolina indictment came just more than a week after a grand jury in Missouri declined to prosecute a white police officer in the shooting death of an unarmed black man in Ferguson, Mo., in August. That decision prompted violence and days of protests. The decision in the Staten Island case Wednesday also triggered widespread protests.
The Bailey family lawyer, Carl B. Grant, told reporters Wednesday that the indictment means justice will be served.
"We don't know what brand of justice they're serving in Ferguson or New York City, but here in South Carolina we believe in the jury system,'' Grant said.
First Circuit Solicitor David M. Pascoe, the prosecutor for Orangeburg and two adjacent counties, declined to comment. He referred a reporter to documents in the case.
In August 2013, a grand jury charged Combs with misconduct in office in connection with the shooting. Combs was placed on leave after the shooting and dismissed from the force six months later.
Bailey’s family reached a $400,000 wrongful death settlement with Eutawville in August. Eutawville, a town of 313 people about 55 miles northwest of Charleston, is 35% black.