Attorneys will get their last chance to address the jury in Orangeburg Monday morning in the case of former Eutawville Police Chief Richard Combs' murder trial.
The defense in a high-profile murder trial rested late Friday, but not before Combs spent some 90 minutes on the witness stand, explaining to a jury how and why he came to kill an unarmed man in the town hall parking lot on a May morning in 2011.
“I was scared; I have never been that scared before in my life,” testified former chief Richard Combs, as a sympathetic defense lawyer gently took him through a step-by-step account of how Combs was trying to handcuff Bernard Bailey while Bailey was sitting in his pickup truck putting it into reverse to drive off.
“I thought I was going to die,” Combs told the jury, explaining Bailey’s pickup truck began dragging him backward while Combs was caught in the truck’s open door. He said he felt he was going to fall and be crushed under the rolling truck.
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The only way he knew to stop Bailey from going any farther was to draw his weapon and fire three shots – two of which struck Bailey in his heart and abdomen area, and the other went through his jaw and out the back of Bailey’s head, Combs said.
Combs was then subjected to an intense cross-examination by 1st Circuit Solicitor David Pascoe, who – his voice laced with sarcasm and disbelief – asked questions designed to show that poor judgment and police policy violations by the ex-chief had caused the shooting.
“That’s the gun you killed Bernard Bailey with, correct?” asked Pascoe in his first question to Combs, holding up State’s Exhibit 1, the .40 caliber Glock semi-automatic that fired the fatal hollow-point bullets.
Pascoe: “Were you scared?”
Pascoe stepped toward Combs, put the gun in his face and snapped: “How did Bernard Bailey feel when you shoved State’s Exhibit 1 in his face?”
That was the first of dozens of questions that, at times, left Combs silent and others, had him glancing toward his three lawyers, John O’Leary, Wally Fayssoux and Paul Landis, who could do little to help him but raise an objection now and then.
Pascoe then focused on an incident six weeks before the fatal shooting, around 2 a.m. March 15, 2011, when Combs – Eutawville’s lone police officer – had stopped Bailey’s daughter Briana for a broken tail light. The stop took place within town limits, less than a mile from where Briana lived with her family. She called Bernard Bailey and he drove to the scene.
A 45-minute police dashcam video – played earlier to the jury by the defense – captured what happened at that stop. Although Bailey, at times, appeared agitated in the video, walking around his daughter’s car while waiting for the ticket to be resolved, he is not seen doing anything clearly menacing. During the video, Bailey called the Orangeburg County Sheriff’s Department to express concern about the traffic stop, fixed the tail light and showed Combs his identification. And four other law officers – summoned by Combs – arrived on the scene.
Several days after the traffic stop, Combs went to the town magistrate and had him swear out a warrant against Bailey for obstruction of justice – a felony charge that carries a 10-year prison sentence. Then Combs waited for Bailey to come to town during his daughter’s court appearance, scheduled for May 3, 2011, to arrest him.
Under Pascoe’s hostile questioning, Combs said he thought Bailey was interfering with the traffic stop to such an extent that he decided to get the warrant.
“Was he obstructing justice when he showed you his identification?” asked Pascoe. “Was he obstructing justice when he called 911 because he didn’t trust you? Was he obstructing justice because he said, ‘Thank you, sir, have a good night’? ... It’s on the video – you want to hear it?”
“I thought what occurred that night fit the charge of obstruction of justice,” Combs replied.
Combs told Pascoe he had looked up the charge of obstruction of justice in state legal statutes on the Internet. Pascoe then handed him a law book and asked him to find it. Combs couldn’t.
“There are no statutory elements of obstruction of justice,” Pascoe told Combs. “You can’t look something up that doesn’t exist.”
Pascoe expressed disbelief at Combs’ taking issue with Bailey coming out to the scene.
“Do you have any children, Mr. Combs?” Pascoe asked., his voice rising in anger. “Can you understand why a father would have enough concern to come out at 2 o’clock in the morning for the heinous crime of a broken tail light?”
“I can understand,” Combs said, explaining that police are taught to try to deal with only the subjects of a traffic stop and not bystanders.
Pascoe also asked Combs why, if Bailey’s behavior was so bad and five police officers were on the scene, Bailey wasn’t arrested that night. Pascoe answered the question himself: “The reason you didn’t arrest Bernard Bailey that night is because he didn’t do any crimes that night! If Mr. Bailey was committing obstruction of justice, isn’t that the best time to arrest him, when you have four other police officers there?”
Combs said he wanted to reflect on the events of that night before deciding what charge to bring.
Both Pascoe and defense took Combs though the events of May 2, when Bailey showed up at the Eutawville town hall, unaware that Combs had a felony warrant and meant to arrest him. Instead, Bailey had come to ask for a court extension for Briana, who was away at college taking exams.
“He said she was a student; she wouldn’t be able to come to traffic court the following day,” Combs testified, adding he then told Bailey that he wouldn’t talk to him about Briana because she was an adult, and he could talk only to her or her lawyer about her ticket.
Then, testified Combs, Bailey became angry. “I said, ‘Do you remember the night of the traffic stop?’ He said, ‘Yes.’ I said, ‘So do I. And I do want to let you know I did obtain an arrest warrant for your actions that night.’ ”
Bailey said, “Warrant – how can you get a warrant now?” testified Combs, who then informed Bailey he was under arrest.
Combs said he told Bailey to relax and started to read the warrant to Bailey, but Bailey walked out of his office and out of town hall to his pickup truck, with Combs following, telling Bailey to stop and that he was under arrest.
When Bailey got in his truck and was putting his key in the ignition, Combs arrived and tried to handcuff Bailey. That’s when Bailey started up the car, drove backward, catching Combs in the door, and Combs – fearing for his life – fired three shots.
After Combs testified, defense attorneys put up Samuel Bowser, a former S.C. Criminal Justice Academy instructor and longtime police veteran, who testified that police are taught they can use deadly force when they fear for their lives. Bailey’s truck had become a deadly weapon, Bowser testified, and Combs was justified in shooting Bailey, Bowser said.
Bowser also pointed out that Combs had no stun gun, Taser or mace he could have used to incapacitate Bailey.
Combs, an ex-Marine who had been a deputy with the Orangeburg County Sheriff’s Department and the Elloree police department, was fired by the town six months after the incident. He is white; Bailey was African-American.
Judge Edgar Dickson said he will send the case to the jury of seven blacks and five whites on Monday.
Eutawville has a population of about 300. Although Combs is white, and Bailey was African-American, race has not emerged as an overt theme in the shooting incident.