Testimony in the case of a former police chief charged in the killing of an unarmed black man painted a picture Thursday of a confrontation that in just a few seconds went tragically wrong and could have been averted if either man had acted differently.
To prosecutor David Pascoe, who rested his case after nine witnesses Thursday, the blame falls on Eutawville’s ex-Police Chief Richard Combs. Combs needlessly served a “trumped-up arrest warrant” on an unsuspecting man who was dropping by town hall to try to help his daughter move a court date and wound up getting shot to death by a trigger-happy Combs, Pascoe said.
But to defense lawyers, who put up their first four witnesses Thursday afternoon, the fault lies squarely with shooting victim Bernard Bailey, a Wal-Mart assistant manager and former state prison guard, who angrily walked out of town hall when Combs served him with a warrant for felony obstruction of justice and told him he was under arrest.
When Bailey jumped in his truck outside and put it in reverse, Combs was reaching in the door and – to save himself from being crushed under the truck – had no choice but to fire three shots with his .40-caliber Glock, killing the 54-year-old Bailey, defense lawyers said.
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Listening intently to all this was a jury of seven blacks and five whites, their faces stoic.
Combs is expected to testify Friday morning and the jury could get the case by afternoon.
Thursday, prosecutors finished their case by using Bailey’s daughter, Briana Bailey, 24, to introduce a half-hour police dashcam video taken in the early morning hours in Eutawville on March 15, 2011, when Combs stopped Briana Bailey to give her a traffic ticket for a broken rear taillight. She called her father, who arrived on the scene.
Although defense attorneys had indicated the video would show Bailey acting belligerently toward Combs, observers in the audience could see little in the video that showed Bailey clearly menacing the police chief, who had summoned other officers to the scene for backup.
Once, on the tape, when Combs asked Bailey why he had a hand behind his back, Bailey showed him that he was just holding a towel, not a weapon.
Bailey has been described as 6 feet 7 inches and about 260 pounds. Combs, 38, an ex-Marine, is about 6 feet 2 inches and 240 pounds.
At one point, Bailey himself called 911 to tell law enforcement about the situation, Briana Bailey testified. Assistant prosecutor Ashley Cornwell played an audio of that call, in which Bernard Bailey is heard speaking calmly, telling the operator, “My daughter has been stopped by the new town police chief of Eutawville.”
Other prosecution evidence has shown that several days after that incident, Combs had the Eutawville town magistrate swear out a felony warrant against Bailey, charging him with obstruction of justice for his behavior during that traffic stop.
And it was that arrest warrant that Combs tried to serve on Bailey six weeks later, on May 2, 2011, when Bailey showed up at town hall to tell the chief that Briana was away at college and to ask for a change of court date. Briana Bailey was scheduled to appear in court the next day.
Late Thursday, defense attorneys put up their first witnesses, Tammy Schuler-Wilson and Brittany Dantzler, two women who worked at Eutawville Town Hall who gave vivid depictions of the fatal encounter.
Both women testified that when Bailey showed up shortly after 8:30 a.m. that day, both men were courteous and the chief invited Bailey back to his office.
Then, when Bailey told the chief he had come to talk about his daughter’s arrest, Combs said he couldn’t talk about it and then informed Bailey he was under arrest for obstruction of justice. At that, Bailey “just sounded shocked and confused and angry,” testified Dantzler, town clerk of court at the time who was sitting outside the chief’s office.
A minute later, Bailey walked out of the chief’s office and out the front door, with Combs following him, telling him to stop that he was under arrest, both women testified.
As Combs went out the door, he told Schuler-Wison to call the Orangeburg County Sheriff’s Department for backup. Dantzler ran to the front door to watch what happened in the parking lot where Bailey’s truck was.
“Mr Bailey was getting into the truck; it looked like the chief was trying to stop him,” Dantzler testified.
With the driver’s door still open, Bailey started the truck and it “looked like he (Combs) was kind of reaching over to turn it off or put it into park. That’s when Mr. Bailey hit the gas,” Dantzler testified.
At that point, the chief’s body was hidden from Dantzler’s view by the open door, but she could see his feet moving and speeding up to keep up with the truck.
“I thought he was going to fall,” said Dantzler, who looked away at that point while yelling to Schuler-Wilson, “He’s dragging him!”
Late Thursday, after the prosecution rested, defense attorney Wally Fayssoux tried but failed to get Judge Edgar Dickson to toss the case out.
Prosecutors also introduced a three-page written statement Combs made several days after the shooting in which Combs asserted he had been caught in Bailey’s truck door as the vehicle went into reverse.
“I couldn’t stay on my feet any longer. I was scared to death. I thought I would die if I fell ... I had nowhere to go. I was afraid for my life. I was able to twist my torso around enough to draw my gun. ... I fired two rounds into his chest. Mr. Bailey pulled his left arm away from me drawing in towards his chest. The truck was still moving but had slowed down quickly after I shot. I started falling forward. ... at the same time, Mr. Bailey began rising towards me. I fired a third round.”