Pictured are Eutawville Police Chief Richard Combs (left) and Eutawville resident Bernard Bailey (right)
ORANGEBURG, S.C. (AP) — The 2011 killing of an unarmed Black man by a small-town police chief in South Carolina was a senseless act of violence and the officer must be convicted of murder because everyone should be treated the same under the law, a prosecutor said Wednesday.
But a defense lawyer said former Eutawville Police Chief Richard Combs was trying to serve a lawfully obtained arrest warrant and the legal system would not work if people could just leave instead of being taken into custody.
Opening arguments started Wednesday in Combs’ murder trial. He faces 30 years to life in prison if convicted.
Combs was indicted shortly after grand juries produced no indictments against White officers in the deaths of unarmed Black men in Ferguson, Missouri, and in New York. He was the third White officer indicted in 2014 in a shooting of an unarmed Black man in South Carolina.
Both sides agree Combs shot Bernard Bailey outside Eutawville Town Hall in May 2011 after an argument over a ticket for a broken taillight the chief gave to Bailey’s daughter a few days earlier.
Combs’ lawyer, John O’Leary, said the chief had a warrant to arrest Bailey on an obstruction of justice charge after the argument over the ticket and people can’t just leave when they are being arrested. As a small-town police chief, he didn’t have a stun gun or pepper spray, so he had no choice but to fire his gun as Bailey tried to back away with Combs in the truck.
Solicitor David Pascoe said Bailey was “gunned down in an absolutely senseless act of violence,” shot three times as he simply backed out to escape an escalating situation. Pascoe told jurors Combs must follow the law, even if he is a police officer.
“Whether he wears a badge or not, the law must treat everyone equal,” Pascoe said.
A jury of seven Blacks and five Whites was seated Tuesday evening.
Combs’ attorneys had asked to move the trial to another county, but later withdrew their request.
Combs was placed on leave after the shooting, and the town dismissed him six months later.
Last August Bailey’s family reached a $400,000 wrongful death settlement with Eutawville, which is 50 miles southeast of Columbia.