The attorney for a white former police chief charged with murder in the shooting death of an unarmed black man asked a judge to move the trial Monday, saying his client can’t get a fair hearing in the rural South Carolina county where the 2011 slaying occurred.
Attorney Wally Fayssoux of Greenville said the case has nothing to do with race, yet he said publicity surrounding the trial – after weeks of protests nationwide over the killings of blacks by white law officers – makes it impossible for Richard Combs to get a fair trial.
“It is incredible the amount of publicity that has come out about this case,” the attorney said, adding that he has been amazed by “the rank inaccuracy of the facts.” One thing he called erroneous was a report that his client was shouting racial slurs at the black man who was shot.
Circuit Court Judge Edgar Dixon is expected to decide Tuesday whether to move the trial after potential jurors are questioned about what they have heard about the case. Dixon and lawyers will question about 75-90 potential jurors.
In recent months, the shooting death of Bernard Bailey, 54, in Eutawville by Combs has attracted national attention.
This fall, a police officer in Ferguson, Mo., shot an unarmed black teen – an incident that provoked weeks of riots. More recently, an unarmed black man in New York died after being placed in a chokehold, and that incident was followed by the execution-style shooting deaths of a Hispanic and an Asian police officer in New York City by a black man.
Combs, who was 35 at the time of the shooting, was indicted last month by an Orangeburg County grand jury. He faces 30 years to life if convicted of murder. The trial is expected to last at least through Friday.
The shooting happened May 2, 2011 when Combs was still police chief. Bailey’s daughter received a traffic ticket from Combs for a broken taillight and called her father to the scene. Bailey and Combs argued at the time and the police chief later got an arrest warrant for Bailey for obstruction.
When Bailey went to Town Hall a few days later to argue about the ticket, the chief tried to arrest the a 6-foot-6 former prison guard.
Bailey went back to his truck and Combs tried to get inside to turn off the ignition. The two briefly fought, and Combs shot Bailey twice in the chest, prosecutors said.
Combs said he was tangled in Bailey’s steering wheel and feared for his life if Bailey drove away. Combs made a bid at a “stand your ground” defense during a November hearing, but a circuit court judge rejected it.
The Justice Department investigated the shooting and found no cause to bring charges. SLED then investigated; its results are being used in this week’s trial.
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 Walmart.
Combs was placed on leave after the shooting, and the town dismissed him six months later. He is currently free on $150,000 bail.
Bruce Smith of The Associated Press contributed.