The murder trial of a white ex-police chief got off to a bruising start Wednesday, with dueling lawyers presenting radically different versions of the shooting that left an unarmed black man dead.
“He was a father, husband, a brother, gunned down in an absolutely senseless act of violence,” 1st Circuit Solicitor David Pascoe said in his opening statement of the victim, 54-year-old Barnard Bailey.
Bailey was shot to death May 2, 2011, in a parking lot in front of the Eutawville police station by then-Police Chief Richard Combs, now 38.
Pointing at Combs, Pascoe said, “Let him know that whether you wear a badge or not, you cannot take a life without justification.”
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Minutes later, defense lawyer John O’Leary – shouting at times – told the jury that Combs was a lone officer without backup trying to serve an arrest warrant. Combs used deadly force as a last resort, O’Leary said, while he was being dragged backwards by Bailey’s pickup as Bailey drove it.
Bailey was armed, O’Leary insisted.
“There is a weapon – the weapon was the truck!” O’Leary said. “The truck is in reverse; the chief’s arm is there ... caught in the apex of the door!”
Then, O’Leary continued, “He (Combs) falls, he fires two shots, he fires a third one, basically on his back. The encounter took two-three seconds. ... He shoots him in self-defense, in fear of his life,” O’Leary said of Combs. “Our defense is self-defense.”
His voice quivering, O’Leary said, “If a police officer can’t arrest someone on an arrest warrant, our system is in chaos ... He (Bailey) rejected being arrested – that’s what this case is about.”
But Pascoe told the jury his witnesses will show Combs acted irresponsibly, used “poor judgment” and had little justification for trying to take Bailey into custody, with or without a warrant that the solicitor described as “trumped up.”
If Bailey had in fact resisted arrest and was going to leave the scene, Pascoe said, Combs should have called for backup so Bailey – who was 6 feet, 7 inches and weighed 260 pounds – could have been arrested later without incident.
Combs, an ex-Marine, is about 6 feet, 2 inches and weighs around 240 pounds.
At the time, Combs was the lone police officer in Eutawville. He had no stun gun.
Wednesday was the first day of the high-profile murder trial in Orangeburg County. The case attracted national attention, in part because of the different races of Combs and Bailey.
But the prosecution isn’t expected to claim that Bailey was shot because of his race, and O’Leary specifically told the jury race played no part.
“This is not racial at all. The fact is, he (Combs) had a warrant,” O’Leary said.
The warrant, charging Bailey with obstruction of justice, stemmed from a March incident in which Bailey had gone to a traffic stop where Combs had ticketed Bailey’s daughter for a broken tail light. Combs had felt threatened by Bailey during that encounter and had the warrant sworn out. When Bailey came by town hall the day he died, Combs tried to take him into custody.
Bailey, Pascoe told the jury and pointed at Combs, was “murdered over a broken tail light, killed because of that man’s poor judgment.”
Seven witnesses testified Wednesday, including a SLED crime scene analyst and the pathologist who did Bailey’s autopsy.
Late Wednesday, pathologist Janice Ross of Newberry told the jury that Bailey was struck by three bullets fired from a Glock .40.
One bullet, which cut through his heart and lungs, was fatal. Another, to the head, would have been fatal by itself unless Bailey had gotten prompt medical intervention. The third, to the abdomen, was not fatal, Ross testified. The bullet to the heart and lungs was fired at close range, she testified.
In the morning, three prosecution witnesses testified.
• Capt. LaCra Jenkins of the Orangeburg County Sheriff’s Department told the jury that there were at least three officers in the vicinity – including Jenkins – who could have assisted Combs in arresting Bailey at a later time.
Jenkins’ time on the witness stand sparked a clash between Pascoe and defense attorney Wally Fayssoux.
Pascoe asked Jenkins: “Were there a lot of things you would have done differently?”
Jenkins: “Yes, sir.”
At that point, Fayssoux objected to letting Jones speculate, prompting Pascoe to quip, “You (Fayssoux) are afraid to get that answer, I guess?”
Fayssoux then asked Judge Edgar Dickson to declare a mistrial, saying that Pascoe had in effect accused him of trying to conceal facts from the jury.
Dickson declined to grant the mistrial, but warned Pascoe to be careful.
• Ronda Bamberg, commander of the investigations unit at the Orangeburg County Sheriff’s Department, told the jury the investigation was turned over to SLED because her office works with the Eutawville Police Department. Bamberg, who was on the scene not long after the shooting, said although Combs was “shaken up,” he had no signs of being dragged, such as bruises or a torn uniform.
Bamberg took control of Combs’ gun, a .40 caliber Glock and its remaining 13 bullets, right after the shooting.
• Christel White, a neighbor of Bailey’s, was at a store across the street and saw the shooting from the other side of the truck. She said someone in the truck – White didn’t know who – had his hands up right before the shooting and Bailey’s truck was moving slowly backward when three shots rang out.
“Boom! Boom! Boom!” she testified. “I said, ‘Oh my God, Mr. Bernard just got killed.’”
Combs was placed on leave after the shooting and the town dismissed him six months later.
Combs faces a minimum of 30 years if found guilty. However, the judge could instruct the jury to consider manslaughter, which carries a much lower penalty.
The prosecution will continue putting up witnesses Thursday morning and may rest by noon.
The defense is expected to take less than a day. Combs will likely testify.
Late Wednesday, Dickson ruled the defense could not introduce evidence that would show Bailey acted aggressively toward police officers in 1998 and 2000.
Prosecutor Don Sorenson protested that those events were so long ago they were irrelevant, and Dickson agreed.
“I want this case to be tried on what happened on May 2, 2011,” the judge said.
The jury has seven black members and five white members.
The town of Eutawville last year 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.