Former Eutawville police chief Richard Combs could have handled the arrest of an unarmed African-American man in a way that didn’t result in the chief’s shooting and killing him, an Orangeburg Sheriff’s department captain testified Monday in Richland County court.
The testimony by Capt. Lacra Jenkins came in the opening minutes of Combs’ retrial on murder charges in the May 2, 2011, shooting of Bernard Bailey, 54, outside the Eutawville town hall in Orangeburg County.
“It easily could have been where a phone call could have had (Bailey) come and turn himself in,” Jenkins testified, adding other alternatives included getting Orangeburg County sheriff’s deputies involved, since Bailey lived just outside Eutawville where Combs didn’t have arrest powers but deputies did.
Bailey had strong community ties and would have very likely come in, Jenkins testified to the jury of 10 whites and two blacks who were seated earlier Monday. Bailey, a longtime resident, had family in the area, had worked 20 years for the S.C. Department of Corrections and worked at a local Wal-Mart.
“That’s my opinion of how Bernard Bailey could have been arrested a lot quicker,” Jenkins testified.
Jenkins testified during Combs’ first trial, in January, but was not asked and did not offer at the time an opinion on whether Bailey’s killing could have been avoided.
Combs’ retrial comes at a time of national attention over white police officers’ shootings and use of force against African-Americans. Some of those incidents have been captured on cellphone videos or police dash cameras. In Combs’ case, there was no video. Evidence is from people involved in several incidents and crime scene experts.
The 2011 shooting happened when Combs, now 38, an ex-Marine, was still police chief. Several months earlier, Bailey’s daughter received a traffic ticket from Combs for a broken tail light and called her father to the scene. Bailey and Combs argued at the time but there was no violence. Later, Combs got an arrest warrant for Bailey for obstruction of justice – a crime that carries up to 10 years in prison. But Combs never served the warrant.
About two months later, Bailey drove to Town Hall to see Combs about a court date on his daughter’s traffic ticket. At that time, Combs informed Bailey that he was going to arrest him for obstruction of justice.
According to witnesses, Bailey was stunned by the charge, got up and walked out to his pickup truck and started it. Combs followed, telling Bailey he was under arrest. As Combs arrived at Bailey’s open door, the truck moved backwards and Combs – who has said he thought he would be pulled under the truck – pulled his .40 caliber Glock and shot Bailey, killing him.
Combs was fired shortly after the shooting.
Jurors deadlocked in Combs’ first murder trial in Orangeburg County. Both prosecution and defense agreed to move the retrial to Richland County.
This week’s trial is expected to finish Friday.
Last year, the town of Eutawville settled a wrongful death lawsuit brought by Bailey’s family, paying the family $400,000.