An eyewitness to the Eutawville police chief’s shooting of an unarmed African-American man testified Tuesday she didn’t see a struggle in the seconds before Bernard Bailey was shot and killed in front of the town hall.
“After the hands went up, all I heard was Boom! Boom! Boom!” Christel White told a Richland County jury on Tuesday morning as the re-trial of former Eutawville police chief Richard Combs moved into its second day. Combs is charged with murder in Bailey’s death.
“There was not even a struggle,” White testified in answer to prosecutor David Pascoe’s questions.
However, under cross-examination by Combs’ defense attorney, Wally Fayssoux, White admitted her view was partially obscured. And she testified she couldn’t tell whose hands she saw that were raised.
As she stood about 40 yards away, across a street on May 2, 2011, in front of a Dollar General store, White could only see the passenger side of Bailey’s 1996 Chevrolet Silverado pickup. The passenger door was closed, and the interaction between Bailey and Combs was taking place on the driver’s side of the truck.
White’s statement about someone having his hands in the air favored the prosecution’s version of events. Prosecutors are trying to show that Bailey was just trying to leave town hall and was going to surrender once confronted by Combs at the driver’s side open door of his pickup.
Later Tuesday, the jury was given another version of events, when prosecution witness State Law Enforcement Division Lt. Charles Ghent read aloud a written statement that Combs had given to SLED agents at his lawyer’s office several days after the shooting. In South Carolina, SLED agents often give law officers involved in shootings time to compose themselves and prepare a statement.
In that prepared statement, which took Ghent more than 10 minutes to read, Combs described trying to serve a legal arrest warrant on Bailey that escalated into a struggle with Bailey at Bailey’s pickup truck in the town hall parking lot. When Bailey put the key in the ignition and started the pickup, the vehicle moved backwards, Ghent quoted Combs as saying.
Combs, who standing next to Bailey, started to fall, and got caught in the open truck door, his statement said. Fearful that he would be run over and die if he fell, the chief pulled out his .40 Glock and fired three bullets into Bailey’s chest and head, his statement state.
Combs’ statement gave the jury a version of events that was not subject to cross examination. In the first trial, in January, when Combs took the witness stand to give his version of events, he underwent a savage grilling by prosecutor Pascoe.
Combs was tried in January in Orangeburg County. But the jury deadlocked. Both prosecution and defense agreed to move the retrial to Columbia.
Asked after court if the defense team was going to put Combs on the witness stand in this trial, defense attorney Fayssoux had no comment.
The prosecution is expected to rest its case Wednesday. By day’s end Tuesday, nine prosecution witnesses had testified.
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 jury hearing Combs’ case is comprised of 10 whites and two blacks. Five are female; seven are male.
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 ticket. At that time, Combs informed Bailey that he was going to arrest him on the obstruction charge.